Curator’s Corner: Learning Curation & Early 20th Century Anthropology Collecting in Mexico

For the past two semesters, I have been a student in a History of Art Department Mellon Graduate Seminar that culminates in “The Papyrus in the Crocodile: 150 Years of Excavation, Exploration, Collection, and Stewardship at Berkeley,” an exhibition at the Bancroft Library.

Typical course responsibilities largely revolved around curation. Early stages of meeting with curators and exploring collections were followed by the crafting of object groupings that indexed layered narratives of collector personalities, departmental origins, and current-day scholarship.

Museum Registration in Practice (Photo by Elaine Yau)

Museum Registration in Progress, Photo by Elaine Yau

In addition to my duties of handling the exhibition loan paperwork, what I came to most appreciate during the course of this curatorial training was the tremendous range of object and archival collections: geographically, culturally, and of course, materially speaking.

With our exhibition location in California, I understand the selected Mexican objects on display as representative of a broad historical nexus of the United States’ interactions with its southern neighbor at a time when Mexico and, more specifically, its diasporic communities are often framed in terms of a political discussion of their relationship to the U.S., whether in presidential debates or across news headlines. A century ago, however, the relationship between Mexico and the United States was exemplified by the personal background of the main collector of the exhibition’s Mexican objects: Zelia Maria Magdalena Nuttall (1857-1933).


Portrait of Zelia Nuttall, Courtesy of the Bancroft Library, BANC PIC Nuttall, Zelia — POR 1

  She was an archaeologist…A lonely daughter of culture, with a strong mind and a dense will, she had browsed all her life on the hard stones of archaeological remains, and at the same time she had retained a strong sense of humanity, and a slightly fantastic humorous vision of her fellow men.

D.H. Lawrence describing the Nuttall-inspired character of Mrs. Norris in The Plumed Serpent (1926)

Ethnohistorian and archaeologist Zelia Nuttall stands as one of the most important, yet underappreciated, catalysts to the founding of a department and museum of anthropology at Berkeley. Born into San Francisco high society, with a family ancestry in Mexico that inspired her research, Nuttall excelled as a mediator between geographic areas as well as between “the world of patronage and the world of scientific projects in need of patronage.”


Pillar dollar design, Mission-era presentation basket donated by Nuttall in memory of her close friend and Berkeley anthropology museum founder, Pheobe A. Hearst (1842-1919), Courtesy of Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology, 1-22478

A life-long Mesoamerican scholar in topics ranging from pre-Columbian codices and figurines to historical manuscripts and headdresses, Nuttall was a pioneer in Mexican anthropology. Her regional interest began as a child when her mother gave her Lord Kingsborough’s Antiquities of Mexico.

 Her first publication — on a collection of terracotta heads from the famous archaeological site of Teotihuacán — led to her 1886 appointment as an honorary assistant in Mexican Archaeology at Harvard’s Peabody Museum, a position she would hold for 47 years.


Mexico object case with diverse materials ranging from a 16th century indigenous codex to a Mission-era presentation basket in the Papyrus in the Crocodile exhibit. Photo by Amanda Guzman

Arguably, Nuttall’s greatest contribution to the field of Mexican anthropology was her commitment to and promotion of the recovery and study of codices (manuscript paintings) through their purchase and/or replication in both museum and private collections. She garnered such distinction that a codex published by Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology was named after her and is still known today as the “Codex Nuttall.”

Today, the legacy of Nuttall’s Mexico lives on in the ever-growing geographic and temporal diversity of Mexican objects housed at the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology.

Speaking on behalf of all the graduate student curators who contributed to this undertaking, it is our hope that the exhibition will serve as a departure point for future hands-on engagement with and critical thinking about UC Berkeley’s 150-year material legacy of diverse object and archival collections housed in numerous repositories across campus.

HearstMuseum_3-584, Facsimile Painting of a Codex-p1ai3tnalmgjplfb60r10mnjgt

Facsimile Cloth Painting of the Geneology of Quauhquechollan-Macuilxochitepec by Mexican artist Genaro Blacio, Courtesy of the Hearst Museum of Anthropology, 3-383

I suspect my fellow anthropologist Zelia Nuttall would have agreed:

As far as ancient Mexico is concerned, it is my experience, for instance, that even after twenty years of study I have barely penetrated its vast field of investigation, and that the more I explore its untrodden paths and discern its multifarious contradictory and perplexing features the less I am inclined to formulate definite conclusions concerning the points at issue.

Zelia Nuttall, American Anthropologist, Vol. 8, No. 1 (Jan. – Mar., 1906), pp. 134


Exhibition Details

The Papyrus in the Crocodile: 150 Years of Excavation, Exploration, Collection, and Stewardship at Berkeley

May 6 – July 29, 2016

Bancroft Library Gallery, University of California, Berkeley

(The Gallery is open Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; closed weekends and administrative holidays)


Amanda Guzman_photograph

Amanda Guzmán is a third-year graduate student in Anthropology at UC Berkeley. Employing different museum institutions as field sites for a broad comparative perspective, she analyzes the history of American museum collecting in, and representation of, Puerto Rico.

This entry was posted in Berkeley Student, Mexico and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Curator’s Corner: Learning Curation & Early 20th Century Anthropology Collecting in Mexico

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