Saturday, 22 August 2015

A life in the day of a museum

Not sure if tio Hernan would approve, but my favourite installation at Peru's National Museum of Archaeology, Anthropology and History  was, and always will be, this fella.


In 2001 congress declared the Peruvian Hairless Dog to be a national treasure - and all museums and archaeological sites that were able to care for them were required to have one on site. On one of our visits to the museum in Pueblo Libre we found Farkis hanging out at the canteen (where else?). 

I think Hernan and Tello would have at least been pleased to see this ancient breed becoming more recognised on its home territory. 

Back in the early part of the twentieth century Tello fought long and hard to find a permanent home for a growing collection of significant finds; to create a place where both scholars and the public could have access to well preserved and documented artefacts. It wasn’t easy, but in 1945 he succeeded in establishing Peru's first state museum - today's MNAAH.

The first major task was to deal with the hundreds of fardos collected on the Paracas peninsula. Young Hernan found hands on conservation work far from glamorous. It was hard, dirty labour.  But the team was on a mission. Hernan’s stories capture the spirit that sustained them through the early starts, the lack of resources, and the backbreaking and meticulous efforts to unwrap and catalogue the mummy bundles.

Here are three of tio Hernan’s Anecdotes where we get a light hearted glimpse into daily goings on at the museum.

A bit of banter between mates
In which a lecherous truck driver has occasion for regret

Even though he was the director it was quite common for Tello to dress in overalls when he was working in the museum. Sometimes he could be studying thousands of pottery fragments for hours and hours. He watched over them all meticulously, guarding each one as if they were precious gold pieces. He employed the same dedication to the museum’s greasy, foul smelling human skulls and bones.

One warm day he was wearing his overalls, standing in the street at the service entrance to the museum, sucking on an ice lolly, when a truck load of plaster of Paris arrived. “Who’s going to take delivery of this plaster order?” shouted the truck driver as he got out, slamming the door.
“Call Goyo,” shouted out Tello. That was Gregorio Seguro, the museum administrator.

The minutes ticked by and Goyo didn’t appear. The rest of us began to get agitated when it became apparent that Goyo was not yet at work. Tello didn’t tolerate a minute’s lateness.

The truck driver, meanwhile, decided to take a rest, and leant up against the doorway next to Tello, who continued sucking on his ice lolly.

Right then, one of the museum’s cleaning women passed by on her way from the main building to the workshops in the opposite block. She had clear eyes and was quite a beauty. Indeed she was a full figured young woman, and both Tello and the truck driver instinctively followed her with their eyes across the street.

The driver, nudged Tello with his elbow.

“My God man, look at the arse on that.”

The famous archaeologist just smiled.

At that precise moment a somewhat flustered Goyo appeared

“Good afternoon, doctor,” he greeted Tello, tipping his hat and hurrying past to open up the storeroom.

The driver clapped his hand to his mouth, at the same time as his shoulders shrank a centimetre or two in embarrassment. It had just dawned on him that his ‘mate’ was none other than the director of the museum.

"Tello is a national institution all by himself, and there is more work going on in his museum with a higher class of personnel than I have seen anywhere else. This old Indian is really as good as the tales that are told about him".
Carl Sauer *

A VIP visitor
In which an important dignitary proves to have an unreliable memory 

The National Anthropology Museum comes under the auspices of the Department of Culture, Archaeology and History; until recently the Department of Artistic Education and Cultural Development.  The director general of this department is a high ranking civil servant on whom many cultural establishments depend; among them the museums.

As you might expect it is understood then that such a functionary must be treated with all possible consideration. But Tello had no time for toadying. He did his job well, stuck to his principles and did everything by the book, and he really didn’t give a fig about anything else.

I think he understood that his rigid approach and inflexibility sometimes risked offending some civil servant higher up the ladder, and that they could damage his position, as indeed did happen to him on certain occasions, but it was more important to him to serve what he saw as the real interests of the State. Most of all he hated unnecessarily wasted time.

fig. 1

The museum was always closed on Mondays for cleaning and maintenance and this was one of the busiest days for Tello. It was on those days that he took the opportunity to inspect the museum scrupulously for the slightest speck of dust or dirt. If the floors were not shining, he himself would sometimes take a soapy cloth and give the cleaners a lesson.

One Monday he called me out of the studio and was giving me instructions for an illustration I was doing when we saw, through the frosted glass of the main entrance doors, a figure. Someone had arrived and, finding the doors closed, was ringing on the doorbell.  The visitor was so insistent that someone eventually opened the doors to him.

Tello interrupted his indications briefly to throw a stern glance in the direction of the unwelcome visitor who walked straight into the hall without seeming to notice the presence of either the archaeologist or myself.
detail from one of Hernan's
illustrations of a Paracas textile
"What do you want?” - Tello called out, without so much as looking up.

“Good morning.”

“Good morning,” Tello replied curtly.

“I’ve come to visit the museum.”

“Today we are closed for cleaning. Did you not see the notice outside?”

“Erm no. I am the Director of the Department of Artistic Education.”

Tello knew very well who the visitor was, and that he had obviously arrived presuming to be most graciously received and attended to, given the significance of his post. Or maybe he had just forgotten that it was Monday.

Now whilst Tello obviously depended upon this particular person to authorize all new personnel or equipment, the thing is that the museum was officially closed and he was busy.

“So how is it that you are here then? You yourself designated Mondays to be the day for cleaning. I’m afraid sir the museum is not open to anyone today; we are too busy. You are welcome to come back tomorrow or any other working day between the hours of eight to twelve and two till six. Good day to you”

And with that he continued on with his dictation to me as if it was just any old body come in from the street. He never lift his head from his work, not even to acknowledge the mumbled “Good day,” from the Director of Artistic Education leaving the building in a mild state of confusion.

The godson
In which an eager young man is hoping for a leg up

One day a young man of about thirty years of age appeared at the museum wanting to speak personally to the director.
“Ask him who he is and what he wants,” Tello said to the assistant who had interrupted him at his work. A few minutes later the assistant was back.

“He says he’s your godson Román…  Román, I’m not sure who. I can’t remember the surname he gave me.”

“Román, Román, a godson called Román? I’ve no idea who that can be. Never mind tell him to wait and I’ll be there in a moment.”

The young man was waiting nervously in the passage way.  Tello was indeed his godfather and who better to ask for a job at the museum.  At last the great archaeologist came out of his office. And, although it must be said the frosty gaze on his face was rather a blow, the prospective young protégé, hoping to change all that, put on a bright smile and advanced stoically.

“Good morning godfather, good to see you.”

“Good morning. Who are you?”

“Er … I’m your godson Román Qulquicondor, doctor.”

“Hmm from which side of the Qulquicondors” Tello frowned.

“Francisco, godfather.”

The frown softened. “Ah! … Now I’ve got it. Well, well. How was I to recognize you when I haven’t seen you for so long? How are you my boy, how is your father; Still in San Damián, and your mother?”

The godson cheered up considerably. “Yes godfather, they’re all still there, all fine and well.”

“Well, and what can I do for you?”

“Godfather I’ve come to ask if you could do me the favour of getting me a position at the museum.”

“A position eh? Well you know that all that depends on the budget. But I’ll see what I can do. What do you know how to do? What is your profession?”

The young man drew himself up to his full height.

“I’m an educator godfather.”

"Hombre!" the scientist stepped back a pace.

"What a fine profession you have there - very noble. It must be you who takes those little devils up to the ruins so that they run amok all over them!"

fig. 2

“Oh no,” protested the young man. “A teacher’s work is very interesting.” He paused a little. “It’s a little bothersome when we have an inspection, that’s all. I’d much rather work here by your side godfather. I’ve always liked archeology.”

“Ah but you have no idea what the work is like here. Maybe you think that all we do is take care of a few old pots."

“I don’t mind what I do godfather. I just want to work here with you.”

“Well, if you’re not afraid of putting your back into it, then there’s no problem. But it’s seriously hard work here. It’s not like being at school. Here we work from seven thirty in the morning until twelve, and then from two thirty until seven at night. Saturdays is all day, and there are several who work on a Sunday too.”

“Don’t worry godfather. I’m a hard working fellow.”

“Well, there’s no clock watching here, only if it’s so you can turn up five minutes earlier in the morning. But if you promise me you’re not one of these ‘my papa told me this and my mama told me that’ then I’m willing to give you a chance. I’ll see where I can put you”.

Tello signaled to a worker passing by in overalls.

“Do you see that man? That man, and all the others you see here in clean shirts and ties, when the time comes, they get half naked and lump around heavy, dirty, stinking funeral bundles. Afterwards, they’re black from their sweat mixed with all the dust that falls out of the mummies. And after that if there’s any digging to be done they have to do that too.”

fig. 3

The young man’s smile stuck firm on his face. “I won’t be beaten by some hard work godfather.”

“Very good son, if that’s the case, there’s no reason to beat about the bush. You can start tomorrow.  Come at five to seven in the morning. The supervisor will give you a set of overalls and a brush.”

“Er … good … er … so I’ll see you tomorrow godfather.”

“See you tomorrow son.”

And the young protégé was never seen or heard of again.

fig. 4

*  Carl Sauer - American geographer and professor at the University of California Berkeley on meeting Tello during a visit to Peru in 1942 as cited by Richard Burger in his essay: The intellectual legacy of Julio C. Tello (The life and writings of Julio C. Tello ed. Burger - p.82)

fig. 1  Hernan and his colleagues at the museum
fig. 2 and 3  Tello at work in the musueum - photos from Paracas, pub. MNAAH, Lima 2013
fig. 4  The unwrapping of fardo no 310, as illustrated by Hernan's colleague Pedro Rojas Ponce - photos also from Paracas. 

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