On November 21, 2021, the artist Gala Porras-Kim wrote a letter to Jane Pickering, director of Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology: “I am interested in objects suspended from their original function or purpose by being stored and displayed in institutions solely as historical objects,” she began. This could easily describe any number of the millions of objects held by the museum, but Porras-Kim’s focus was on the Peabody’s collection of thousands of artifacts found in a major sinkhole: the Sacred Cenote at Chichén Itzá on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. The Maya peoples understood the site as a portal to the spiritual world and deposited jade, ceramic, gold, shell, wood, copal, and textile objects, along with human remains, into the cenote as offerings to Chaac, the Mayan rain god. The vast majority of the Peabody’s collection was dredged from the cenote between 1904 and 1911 by Edward H. Thompson, an American diplomat and self-styled archaeologist who gained access by purchasing surrounding property and then employed various forms of subterfuge to smuggle the artifacts into the United States. In the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution, a lawsuit during the 1930s and early ’40s to repatriate the collection of cenote objects ultimately proved unsuccessful. For Porras-Kim, however, “human laws” are but one framework for assessing the value of these centuries-old items. As the artist notes, “Their owner, the rain, is still around.”
Martha Buskirk, "The Ethics of Dust." Artforum, March, 2022.
Edward H. Thompson, Men working at the cenote at Chichen Itza. Collection of The Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.