Collecting Mesoamerica: The Hemispheric Roots of U.S. Anthropology. A recent exhibit (May 8 – July 7, 2017) at the Kislak Center, University of Pennsylvania Libraries, curated by Lindsay Van Tine.
Editor’s Note: Due to the participatory nature of museum exhibits, the HAN Editors have chosen to publish this piece both as a “Review” and as part of its “Participant Observation” series. The Editors welcome and encourage future multi-purpose submissions in the form of reviews, reports, or other reflections on interactive projects and exhibits related to the history of anthropology.
The name of Daniel Garrison Brinton is not one that is on the tip of the tongue for many anthropologists specializing in studies of Mesoamerican cultures, languages, and history. Nevertheless, in a recent exhibition at the University of Pennsylvania’s Kislak Center for Special Collections, Collecting Mesoamerica: The Hemispheric Roots of U.S. Anthropology, curator Lindsay Van Tine elucidates how Brinton—a prolific late nineteenth century “armchair anthropologist” par excellence—played a considerable role in defining what we now know as “Mesoamerica,” both as a bounded geographic space and as a field of scholarly specialization. As such, Van Tine’s exhibit contributes to an archaeology of the discipline in a Foucauldian sense of the term, exposing some of the deep and at times forgotten roots of Mesoamerican studies. The exhibit also contributes to an archaeology of the discipline in a somewhat literal sense. To curate the exhibit, Van Tine sifted through and uncovered objects and documents that had long been dispersed in a number of different archives at the University of Pennsylvania in an effort to reconstruct Brinton’s collection of Mesoamerican materials as it was constituted at the end of the nineteenth century.
Brinton was the first professor of anthropology in the United States, appointed by the University of Pennsylvania in 1886 as Professor of Archaeology and Linguistics. As he pursued his interests in the discipline later in life as a second career, he did not carry out his own field research, instead relying on a voluminous collection of published literature and manuscripts upon which he based his studies. Though his geographic interests were fairly wide-ranging, he devoted the bulk of his scholarly endeavors to comparative studies of indigenous societies of the Americas. Taking a holistic view of anthropology typical of his time, he collected materials on subjects including native American linguistics, folklore, ethnology, religion, and antiquities. As Van Tine notes, Brinton’s approach was couched within a neo-Lamarckian evolutionist view of human societies, and a primary aim of his comparative work was to develop a hierarchical classification and ranking of these various groups. This work led to Brinton conceiving of anthropology more broadly as a “science of race” during the later portion of his career, concerned greatly with questions of cultural superiority and inferiority, a perspective that would receive stiff rebuke from Boasian cultural relativism in the early twentieth century.
Van Tine’s exhibit provides a window into the corpus of materials Brinton drew from and how he organized them in undertaking the above endeavors, with special focus on the Mesoamerican region extending from northern Mexico to lower Central America. The exhibit is cleverly designed as a large wooden filing case, with a display at the top under glass, and three distinct drawers beneath (also with glass coverings) that the viewer is invited to pull out and examine. Not only does this make for an economic use of space, but it evokes for the viewer the work of rummaging through various archives and filing cabinets that Van Tine undoubtedly had to undertake in her efforts to reconstitute Brinton’s collection. As such it exposes viewers to the research process in an interactive fashion.
Each case consists of materials from Brinton’s collection related to a broad theme. The top case, or Case #1, is devoted to time, and highlights Brinton’s materials related to Mexico’s pre-Hispanic past. These include illustrations and photographs of archaeological materials, as well as materials related to early studies of Maya hieroglyphics, topics that were of rapidly growing interest in the Anglophone world following Mexico’s independence and the opening up of the region to foreign explorers.
Case #2 focuses on space, consisting largely of various early maps, showing how scholars conceived of Mesoamerica as a bounded space, and features they took into account while drawing those boundaries and subdivisions within them. Prominent here are materials from the collection of Prussian-born linguist Carl Hermann Berendt, which Brinton purchased in 1871. They include hand-drawn maps of linguistic areas of the region of Oaxaca, and of historical place-names in Yucatán.
The last two cases are focused more deeply on issues of writing and language. Case #3 consists largely of early facsimiles of colonial Aztec painted manuscripts, which were just beginning to become objects of serious study during Brinton’s time. These documents, which often incorporate elements of pre-Hispanic pictographic writing and Roman alphabetic texts in multiple languages, exemplify some of the complex relationships between oral and visual communication in Mesoamerican history. Lastly, Case #4 contains a number of documents from Berendt’s collection on indigenous languages in the region, including a sixteenth century Nahuatl-Spanish dictionary, and Berendt’s notes on a comparative analysis of Maya and Nahuatl vocabularies. This last case, in particular, is revealing of how early scholars went about defining an area as linguistically diverse as Mesoamerica as a singular cultural region.
If asked when the concept of “Mesoamerica” first emerged as a coherent area of study, most scholars working in the field today will likely cite a seminal article by Paul Kirchhoff published in 1943. In it, Kirchhoff drew from many of the same materials as Brinton, and employed a checklist of similar cultural traits, examining practices ranging from religion to subsistence, to argue that indigenous groups of the region shared a common overarching culture, coining the term “Mesoamerica” to describe it. Van Tine’s exhibit reveals some of the deeper roots of this formulation. Kirchhoff was working from many of the same bodies of historical and linguistic materials as Brinton, and was guided by many of the same assumptions regarding connections between indigenous groups such as the Maya and the Aztec. If Kirchhoff did in fact “invent” the concept of Mesoamerica in 1943, one could at least argue that “the fix was already in,” so to speak—that is, much of his work effectively provided a more systematic and rigorous justification for deploying assumptions of cultural difference and similarity that scholars like Brinton were implicitly making decades before.
Today, the concept of Mesoamerica continues to have advocates and critics. While virtually all anthropologists now reject the reductivist methodology based on checklists that Kirchhoff employed in coining the term, many still find the concept worth retaining for emphasizing certain historical connections and intensities of interactions between indigenous societies of the region. Others, similarly concerned with such connections and interactions, might argue for extending its boundaries further north and south to examine relationships with peoples of lower Central America and the U.S. Southwest. Others still might take a skeptical view of area studies in anthropology more generally, wary that they risk spiraling into parochialism. Regardless of where one stands on the matter—whether one wishes to continue to work within Mesoamerica’s confines, push its boundaries, or break them down all together—Collecting Mesoamerica does a valuable service in exposing how these boundaries were initially drawn, and reminding us not to take them for granted.
 For a thorough review, see Lee D. Baker, “Daniel G. Brinton’s Success on the Road to Obscurity, 1890-99,” Cultural Anthropology 15, no. 3 (2000): 394-423.
 Kirchhoff, Paul, “Mesoamérica, sus límites geográficos, composición étnica y caracteres culturales,” Acta Americana 1 (1943): 92-107.
 Rosemary A. Joyce, “Mesoamerica: Towards a Working Model for Archaeology,” in Mesoamerican Archaeology: Theory and Practice, ed. J. A. Hendon and R. A. Joyce (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2003), 1-42.
 See, for example, John M. D. Pohl, “Transnational Tales: A Millennium of Indigenous Cultural Interaction Between the United States and México,” in The Forked Juniper: Critical Perspectives on Rudolfo Anaya, ed. R. Cantú (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2016), 253-288.
 See, for example, Sanjay Subrahmanyam, “Connected Histories: Notes towards a Reconfiguration of Early Modern Eurasia,” Modern Asian Studies 31, no. 3 (1997), 735-762.