Sensitive to Art & its Discontents
Dutch officials have agreed to repatriate hundreds of Indigenous artifacts to an archaeological museum in Panama. The announcement on August 29 claimed that the 343 pre-Hispanic ceramics held in storage at Leiden University were sent to the Museo Antropológico Reina Torres de Araúz in Panama City, where they will soon go on permanent display. In a government statement, Panamanian Foreign Minister Erika Mouynes described the collection as “the largest return of archaeological pieces in the history of Central America.”
The collection of pre-colonial pottery originates from the Gran Coclé region, which includes the contemporary province of Coclé and Azuero peninsula, and dates to circa the first millennium CE. Researchers believe the objects were excavated in the early 1900s, around the time Panama declared independence from Colombia. Many of the pieces are utilitarian, such as plates and bowls used in domestic settings; others were used as grave goods or burial vessels containing human remains. Some of the wares display hand-painted geometric decorations or show signs of clay modeling.
According to Alex Geurds, an archaeologist and lecturer at Leiden, a Dutch businessman acquired the materials at local markets in Panama while stationed there in the 1960s and ‘70s. Following his retirement in 2017, he donated them to the National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden. Within a few years, Leiden archaeologist Martin Berger and PhD students Natalia Donner and Devon Graves thought of offering them to Panamanian authorities. Geurds points to the rise of a tourist industry in Panama that resulted in the sales. 
“The gentleman in question did nothing illegal whatsoever, but the market was locally there to cater to his interests,” Geurds told Hyperallergic. “And the market was there in the first place because there is an active supply and demand mechanism that drives the trafficking of ‘antiquities’ to this day. These materials here are not highly prized items you will see at Sotheby’s, but they are the undercurrent of that market.”
Pre-Hispanic artifacts continue to be excavated in Panama, notably several gold decorative objects and jewelry from the Necropolis of El Caño in 2009. Additionally, the United States still holds significant collections in the Museum of Natural History and Brooklyn Museum in New York and Harvard’s Peabody Museum. While repatriation can involve requests from either nation-states or Indigenous descendants, Geurds claims that no Indigenous communities in Panama have laid claim to the collection. Rather, Panama’s Ministry of Culture fostered the shipment with Netherlands ambassadors.
As a member of a 1970 UNESCO convention against trading cultural property, Panama is attempting to recover its cultural heritage after more than a century of illegal trafficking, which includes the looting and trading of Indigenous artifacts. Along with the Netherlands, Panama’s Ministry of Culture claimed in a press statement that Italy would soon follow suit, though Hyperallergic could not independently confirm this.
The Reina Torres museum is located in an early-20th-century railway station and holds more than 16,000 archeological, anthropological, and craft pieces. Yet the museum has never been open to the public, leading some Panamanian critics to wonder why they have to travel to the US to experience their ancestral heritage. Despite plans to open in 2019, the museum underwent another renovation in 2020 and pushed its opening to 2023.
The Ministry of Culture did not immediately respond to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.
Editor’s note 9/7/22 10:45am EDT: This article has been updated to include the role of Leiden archaeologist Martin Berger in the return of the artifacts.
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Billy Anania is an editor, critic, and journalist in New York City whose work focuses on political economy in the cultural industries and the history of art in global liberation movements.
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Hyperallergic is a forum for serious, playful, and radical thinking about art in the world today. Founded in 2009, Hyperallergic is headquartered in Brooklyn, New York.


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