Perhaps the most famous line in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is ‘that belongs in a museum’, spoken as he risks his life to retrieve a stolen artifact. Although most people wouldn’t go that far in making sure a relic ends up in a museum, it’s what many people naturally assume – precious artificats belong in museums. Museums are wonderful places. They preserve fragile artifacts while allowing anyone to come and experience history first hand. However, not every ancient object needs to be in a museum. There is a case for leaving some items where they are found, keeping the landscape intact with the object in its natural resting place.
In 2001 William Saturno went on a Peabody funded expedition to a remote area of the Peten in Guatemala. He was hoping to find an undisturbed site to research. His guides got lost in the dense jungle, and by chance they came across a ruined city deep in the forest. Unfortunately the city had already been looted and looked like a battlefield in places. Tomb raiders had burrowed trenches into jungle-clad temples and removed many artifacts. You can imagine his frustration as he surveyed the scene before him. However, William went into one trench and discovered that underground murals had been exposed by the looters. The murals were exquisite, and would turn out to be the oldest Mayan murals ever discovered.
In the past many people would have uncovered and removed all the murals straight away, with them often ending up in a museum. Even today some archaeologists would have immediately started excavating the site to reveal all the murals. William took a different approach: he instead secured the site and spent two years organising a project. He then led a team as they uncovered and restored all of the murals, revealing just how amazing they were. It turned out they were from 200BC, and the temple has since become known as the Mayan Sistine Chapel.
Rather then remove them after they were restored, he decided to leave the murals in place in there natural setting. This approach ensured that the site was left intact and the murals stayed where they had been for over 2000 years. This meant that future travellers could come and marvel at the murals, and feel a sense of discovery and awe too. Experiencing objects in the place of there creation is a more powerful experience than when they are dislocated in a museum. In this case it’s a much better approach than stripping the temple of it’s beauty, taking away it’s very heart. Transported to a museum the murals would lose there connection to the landscape, and would become just another exhibit.
I trudged down a narrow path in the jungle, the sunlight blocked by the dense canopy of trees above me. God it was hot and humid. I came out into an area where the trees were thinner, and stopped and stared in wonder; It was another former plaza within the ancient city. I could see the start of series of small temples to my right, and could make out another row on the opposite side of the plaza. I made my way towards the temple opposite, the light lancing down in shards through the gaps in the branches overhead, and stopped in front of a group of large stone slabs. The stones had faded Mayan symbols on. These were Stele that told the history of the ancient Mayan city of Calakmul. They had been stood here for over 1400 years. They had seen the city go from one of the largest in the world, to a forgotten, abandoned ruin in a remote corner of the Yucatan. The Stele were here when the city was rediscovered, and now they were here as I stood before them.
It was a powerful feeling to stand before objects that had stood in one place for so long, objects that told the story of a once mighty empire. I felt the weight of history as I gazed at them, and I imagined what it must have been like here when the Stele were completed. It could have been different – many Stele have been removed from Mayan sites to be sold to private collectors or museums. Fortunately some of the Stele at Calakmul have survived. The site would have been diminished without them, and I was certainly glad they were still there when I came across them.
Museums are magical places. They allow people to feel a true connection to our past, to feel the weight of history in person. Walking around an old atmospheric museum is a pleasure many people enjoy. When a museum is quiet and you slowly meander around the rooms and corridors, it feels at times like you are walking through history. It’s the type of intangible connection you can never get from a book or especially a computer screen. Museums also allow experts to study and catalogue items in a secure location, helping us to expand our understanding of the past. Many items held in museums would have been destroyed or lost if they hadn’t have been transported there. Western museums especially have conserved millions of irreparable items. They certainly play a huge role in preserving the cultural heritage of humanity.
However, more needs to be done to ensure that some items can be preserved in the location they are found where possible. It would be a tragedy if every ancient site was stripped of most of their artifacts and artwork.
Like Indiana Jones said many artifacts are better off in museums….. just not all of them.