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Antiquity Vol 77 No 297 September 2003

Identity Reconstructed: A Sculpture Park in
Malacatoya, Nicaragua

Johannes Kranz

In Malacatoya, one of the poorest rural areas of Nicaragua, the Foundation "Casa de los Tres Mundos" is erecting a sculpture park. Enlarged copies of salvaged pre-Columbian findings have been created to give a piece of history and identity back to the people of a newly constructed village. The following paper presents this innovative educational and preservational initiative which could serve as a model for joint efforts in community building, the strengthening of local identity and the challenge of preserving local culture.

Today, most Third World countries are in a peculiar state of cultural disorder. Their self-understanding and self-confidence typically resembles a flagrant collage, collected from the various dumps of civilization: imported elements, relatively recent, shimmering pieces of extreme, often radical ideas and adapted customs thrive on the fertile soils of extreme poverty and despair. From a large scale historical vantage point, the causes of this disorder seem obvious. Disconnected from their roots, the majority of these countries have filled the identity vacuum with ideological residuals accompanying economic disaster. Culturally speaking, the Third World countries fall between two stools - deprived of long-standing traditions, they have readily adapted whatever was offered promising hope. Looking at their way of life, one will notice an eerie mix of "Middle Ages" and "High Tech", a sharp contrast not only between obscene capital and crass poverty but also between a long forgotten past and an uncertain future. Ostentatious automobiles, GPS and cyber net sit next to encrusted people crouched before log fires in their dwellings of clay and plastic roofs.

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Under such historical and social conditions, it seems impossible - ethically and economically - to ask in those countries for an appreciation of "archaeological values". At any rate, under these circumstances there is hardly any interest in archaeological activities. The vacuum of cultural identity together with misery has created a characteristic lack of understanding among the people as well as among public authorities. The ordinary people usually do not show any understanding or interest in the goal of "preservation", whereas the upper class and the public sector may well be interested in archeological activities, but usually only to the extent that they believe they can commercialize it for tourists and turn the past to profit. One may even get the impression, that in Third World countries, the "very appreciation of the old" itself is another product, imported by cultivated strangers for cultivated strangers.

It is fair to assume this picture is a generalized account, but I think it is nevertheless true, in the sense that it formulates some of the core problems that most archaeological projects have to face in underdeveloped countries.

The following sections propose a way to confront the dilemma. On the basis of an innovative educational and preservational project in Nicaragua, the proposal outlines a model solution that could be implemented in similar contexts worldwide, particularly in Third World countries.

1. Frame of the Project

The Foundation "Casa de Los Tres Mundos", in Granada, Nicaragua has been funding and supervising the construction of the village "Los Ángeles" in Malacatoya since 1998. The 134 houses, erected by their future inhabitants with professional consultation, will give some 1000 people displaced by the hurricane "Mitch" a new and better home.

The final phase of this integrated rural development project focuses on installing social components (medical- women's- and children's centre), on employment (carpentry, tailor's shop, bee-keeping, medical plants, tree nursery and vegetable garden) and on cultural activities. The Foundation will regularly offer various workshops, painting, drawing and theatre for children, and organise concerts and other cultural events. Besides these artistic activities, which are offered particularly to children, the Foundation is now constructing a special kind of museum, a pre-Columbian sculpture park.

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Figure 7 2. On the general necessity and benefits of a museum in a problem zone

At first sight, the necessity and benefits of a pre-Columbian sculpture park museum may not be obvious. What, one might ask, should the people of one of Nicaragua's poorest rural regions make of a "museum"? Most people in this region do not have a clear concept of what a "museum" is, many don't even know the word. It is not possible to expect a farmer, with a family of five to care for without regular income, to be interested in ancient pieces of clay. Only once basic human needs are met, and if the museum is presented in a relevant and non-conventional manner, can this be possible. However, Malacatoya provides the basic supplies for carrying the project forward. Now it is possible to create a lively museum with unusual means. It is one of the Foundation's central aims not only to provide material aid, but besides and in conjunction with the latter, to "mobilise the creative potentials of the local people, rediscover buried cultural heritage and help a young nation search for a unique identity" (Schönherr 2000: 138). Only by combining these two elements can a developing programme be effective in promoting long term economic and cultural prosperity.

3. On the particular need and advantage of a museum in the region of Malacatoya

"Los Ángeles" / Malacatoya is particularly appropriate to host a museum for two reasons. First, because the region is in desperate need of a community identity, and second, because it is located near a gigantic neglected pre-Columbian necropolis (Chorotega).

The region needs a local cultural identity, as the people of its communities live scattered in newly erected housing estates (due to migration, natural destruction, hurricanes and flooding) and therefore entirely lack social bonds and historic awareness. A cultural focal point such as a museum will decisively help mend these deficits.

The regional advantages of having a museum in "Los Ángeles" are also very clear. "Los Ángeles" is located in a favourable geographic position, since only three miles away there is the large but neglected archaeological site, the indigenous cemetery "El Cementario San Pedro" which suggests archaeological research. For two years, the excavation pieces, earthenware vessels, jewellery, figures, weapons and other archeologically significant findings of the Chorotega tribes (800-1200 AD) have been carelessly unearthed by the impoverished population. It often involves working children and the pieces are sold for a few dollars to traders abroad. Recovering some of these objects adequately under the supervision of archaeological institutions (Instituto de Cultura Managua, and a US-American university) would save parts of this invaluable Nicaraguan cultural heritage.

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Figure 6 4. Merits of a sculpture park

The sculpture park in "Los Ángeles" contributes effectively to recovering these deficits. It promotes a consciousness of history, creates genuine cultural identity and, due to its proximity to the site of "San Pedro", it has a direct regional connection. Presenting the objects in the form of oversized sculpture-copies turns dusty showcase exhibits into an accessible, living past and arouses the interest and curiosity of the community. Close co-operation with the village speakers ("Líderes") as well as a survey in the run-up have optimised the acceptance among the population. Professional preparation and presentation are designed to protect Nicaraguan cultural heritage and will create jobs in other areas, such as tourism, in the long term. Finally, using indigenous motifs as archetypes of the sculpture-copies, does not imply forcing imported cultural elements on a Third World country, but promotes the consciousness of its own cultural roots.

Our plan for 2004 is to create a house-sized sculpture that will host a small museum, containing the originals in showcases embedded into the walls. We want to call it "Museo Futurista", because in addition to the displayed Chorotega originals, there will be a monitor to explain some of the tribes' life, and an internet point with interactive links to relevant information on pre-Columbian culture, both powered by solar panels.

It is hoped that this paper has aroused your interest in the sculpture park project in Malacatoya, a proposal designed to effectively confront the dilemma between the existence of archaeological abundance and an environment of extreme poverty. The Foundation "Casa de los Tres Mundos", together with the Muséo Nacional de Nicaragua invites archaeologists and/or institutions interested in doing research at the Chorotega necropolis "San Pedro/Malacatoya" to collaborate in the future. The Foundation also offers to share its experiences in the sculpture park as an innovative educational and preservational project to be implemented in similar contexts world-wide, particularly in underdeveloped countries.

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  • SCHÖNHERR, D. Die Blutroten Tomaten der Rosalía Morales. Frankfurt/Main: Eichborn 2000, p. 138. transl. J.K.

Johannes Kranz: Fundation "Casa de los tres Mundos", Antigua Casa de Los Leones, Plaza de Los Leones, Granada, Nicaragua, América Central
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