Out of the Glass Case: Museum Heists and Repatriations




THE MOST RENOWNED museums in the world are swollen with art, religious relics, jewelry, and household goods created by historically colonized peoples and imported to museums. Archaeologists, Christian missionaries, explorers, art collectors, and smugglers have all played a role in the movement of these objects, mostly to Europe and the United States. Now, that movement is being reversed: just in the last year, countries including Jamaica, Egypt, Greece, and Australia have called upon museums in the United States and Europe to return cultural artifacts and human remains. As museum curator and anthropologist Chip Colwell put it in a recent New York Times op-ed, these events seemed “unlikely not long ago.” The pace of their unfolding reveals not an isolated legacy but “a war over the rights of former colonial subjects and the future of museums.”

When museums are reluctant to repatriate items, they often point to the stability of institutional preservation, which allows them to share these items with a wide audience. As museums acquired items in the 19th and 20th centuries, they were also developing best practices for their preservation and display. As a spokesperson for the British Museum put it, “We believe the strength of the collection is its breadth and depth, which allows millions of visitors an understanding of the cultures of the world and how they interconnect.”

That line of reasoning, though, depends on the Victorian technologies of display that were created in order to dislocate and appropriate these cultural items in the first place. The glass case in particular dislocates items from their original cultures, isolates and sanctifies them, creating a new context. Display assimilates the artifact and authenticates it as part of the museum collection. Discussions of repatriation often omit that process, overlooking how these technologies of display have created a false sense of belonging that makes repatriation so challenging.

The 2018 film Museo debunks that false authenticity by underscoring its own fabrication. Calling itself a “replica” version of a famous museum heist that occurred in Mexico City in 1985, it fictionalizes the true story of how Mesoamerican artifacts were stolen from the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. Museo amplifies the cultural dislocations that brought the artifacts to the museum in the first place, depicting a world that isn’t ready for repatriation. Instead, it offers the replica, a way to create a version of the lost past — though that version will never quite satisfy the desire to hold the past in our hands.

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One detail of the 1985 museum heist that everyone agrees on is the lack of security. Sneaking in on Christmas Eve while few guards were on duty, the thieves had only to pry open the glass cases to remove the artifacts. These surprisingly insecure boxes were a Victorian hangover that once offered a new way to enclose the plunder of the Victorian empire and exhibit it for the masses. Stronger and cheaper than ever, glass offered a way to take the 17th- and 18th-century techniques of the curio cabinet out of the private home and put them to work in the public institution.

Now synonymous with museum display, the glass case of the 19th century was part of a rapidly growing set of rules around the collection, preservation, and display of cultural artifacts. Glass cases classify objects into groups, testifying to the depth and range of the collection. They also separate objects from viewers, allowing visitors to look but not touch, confirming the objects’ value and the care being taken to preserve them. Glass induces both a sense of an artifact’s value but also of mastery over the specimens of extinct species or far-flung peoples. Critics call this the “museum effect” — when an object is separated from its original context and rendered an isolated specimen or work of art within the institution of the museum. Viewers respond differently to objects in this context, understanding them as part of a system of information: extracted from their original culture, classified, labeled, and absorbed into the new system. The museum becomes an empire of knowledge.

Affiliated with a single nation, the museum effect may help explain commentators’ reaction to the art heist in 1985. While these precious artifacts had been doubly stolen — first from their original contexts and then from their museum display — public responses to the theft focused only on the second theft, treating the objects as part of a united Mexican cultural heritage rather than as objects taken from their pre-colonial contexts and displayed in a single room of the imperial capital. The museum effect had rendered those objects’ pasts invisible. They were seen only as part of modern-day Mexico’s heritage, not as part of a regional, Mesoamerican past.

In this vein, Mexican officials and press immediately blamed criminal masterminds, sponsored by foreign nations eager for these cultural treasures. Writing in the weekly newspaper Punto, for instance, the columnist Joel Hernandez Santiago described the United States as “a country which, lacking its own valuable cultural antecedents, robs or buys others.” That makes the dark joke of the heist even funnier and sadder; the actual thieves were Mexican veterinary students. Museo fictionalizes them as Juan Nuñez and Benjamín Wilson, slackers who take the objects in a misguided effort to do something bold.

Juan, the ringleader, has disappointed his family for many years before he finds himself watching a news bulletin with them about his own theft. The museum publicly “warns Mexico of these thieves, enemies of their past and heritage. All Mexicans are called upon to rally against this act of shameful, unpatriotic theft.” By labeling the theft “unpatriotic,” the museum allies the artifacts with a unified, modern nation — and ignores its more complex past. The imprint of that history is visible in the faces of Juan and his family. Middle-class professionals living in the capital city, they appear more colonizer than colonized, as evidenced later when a police officer calls Juan “whitey.”

As the family reacts in disgust to the news of the theft, Juan’s father proclaims that the artifacts are “our history.” The film asks us to question the possessive pronoun. Can he claim a shared history of the death mask of a Mayan king? But when he follows it up by saying, “Our heritage, our culture, that’s their only value,” the film is also acknowledging the truth of that statement. Though Juan and Benjamín have stolen the museum’s most portable, treasured objects, they find that the artifacts are also strangely valueless. Though the film follows the heist movie trajectory as the thieves go on the run, it pulls up abruptly as the unique and highly recognizable goods cannot be fenced. “They might as well be worthless,” a wealthy British art collector tells them.

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In place of the value-less original, Museo offers the narrative potential of fabrication, announcing itself in the opening sequence as a “replica of the original.” Literary scholar Saidiya Hartman has claimed that “[t]he past depends less on ‘what happened then’ than on the desires and discontents of the present.” In order to illuminate those desires and discontents, Museo fills the gaps in the story with inventions: a wild goose chase through Mayan monuments, a family drama, a new ending. Fabrication, Museo hopes, can illuminate the gaps and losses of the past by drawing attention the created nature of all histories.

Through it all, the characters caress and carouse with the stolen artifacts — which are detailed replicas of the originals provided by the museum itself. They include a Zapotec figure, an Aztec obsidian vase, and the jade funeral mask of the seventh-century Maya ruler Pakal. The characters and the camera linger on these objects — the men can’t help but touch them, even lick them, reveling in the experience of touching without glass. The removal of the objects from their cases takes 12 slow minutes. The camera focuses tightly on the work involved in prying open the cases, one by one. We see a lock picked, wooden casings pried off, even plexiglass melted with hot acetone. The thieves’ flashlight replaces the museum display lighting, shining at odd, imprecise angles.

The drama isn’t in whether or not they’ll get caught; it’s all in the dismantling of the glass cases, the lifting of each artifact from its rarefied atmosphere into the mixed-up world of everyday objects. Juan and Wilson wrap up each one tenderly in old T-shirts, treating them with all the care they have, though their care — for these artifacts, for their families, even for each other — is clearly inadequate. Freed from glass, these cultural treasures almost immediately lose their aura and are used for, among other things, drinking, snorting coke, and building sandcastles.

Unable to make any cash and realizing that their audacity is really negligence, Juan and Benjamín decide to return the artifacts to the museum. (In reality, the crime remained unsolved for over three years.) But Juan, seeking a kind of self-immolation, can’t help but visit the displays that formerly held the objects. He holds Pakal’s jade funeral mask in his hands one last time before depositing it on top of the case, in full view of visitors and guards, and shortly finds himself surrounded by police.

Inside that display case, however, the mask has already been replaced by a copy. The sign next to it reads, “This piece is a replica of the original,” echoing the movie’s self-description in its opening lines. Though neither the film nor the mask is an authentic piece of the past, they nonetheless offer something truthful; the past is only a version of the present. Juan complains that he doesn’t like history because “it was all made up,” but the film counters that way of thinking by showing the value in fabrication. When asked about the film’s historical accuracy, the film’s director, Alonso Ruizpalacios, replied, “Why ruin a good story by telling the truth?” Artificial and often irreverent, fabrication punctures the illusion of accuracy in favor of the suggestiveness of fiction.

The fiction and fabrication of the replica may be a more appropriate way to evoke a past riddled with cultural dislocation and loss, a loss captured most vividly by the empty display cases at the end of the film. Only the jade mask has been replaced by a replica; the other cases are left intentionally empty. Juan wends between the empty boxes, rendered with the gauzy beauty of a memory, each display case a sparkling monument to loss. And these monuments — even more than the objects they once held — draw crowds. The narrator intones, “Everyone wanted to see the empty cases. More people came than ever before.”

Though it sidesteps the larger question of repatriation, Museo nonetheless recognizes the violence that the display case legitimates. That violence, it points out, cannot be undone simply by opening the glass case. There is no authentic history that has been preserved alongside these stolen displays, so what we have left are only replicas: authentic artifacts with fake histories and real stories that can only be told through fabrication.

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Megan Ward is assistant professor of English at Oregon State University and the author of Seeming Human: Artificial Intelligence and Victorian Realist Character. Her work on the Victorian antecedents of contemporary culture and politics has appeared in such places as The Atlantic and The Washington Post.


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