Weeks before Dolores Jiménez-Blanco triggered with his resignation at the head of the General Directorate of Fine Arts the first crisis of Miquel Iceta as Minister of Culture, the Cortes of Aragon signed with the consent of the Ministry the insurance policy that covers for one year plus 17 taifa pieces from the 11th century. Now they rest in their place of origin, La Aljafería (Zaragoza) from where they left in 1868 on their way to their new destination, the National Archaeological Museum (MAN). The idea was to protect the delicate pieces from the complex’s conversion into a military barracks. They stayed in Madrid until 2008 when they returned to the old Muslim palace – current headquarters of the Cortes de Aragón – after borrowing them for the Zaragoza International Exposition. The commitment of the Aragonese institution was, like that of all loans, to return the works at the end. The assignment was extended until 2011, but since then the Courts have refused to reimburse the Madrid museum for assets valued at almost 20 million euros.
The Lady of Elche causes a political storm
The Ministry of Culture has not been able to respond to this newspaper in 48 hours if they have claimed the seven capitals, four friezes, a rose window, several decorative fragments and two exceptional six-meter high arches that are exposed to the public in an area of step, between the hemicycle and the administrative area of the courts. These two pieces were part of the arches in the central courtyard of the extraordinary Taifa palace. One is valued at 3.5 million euros, the other at 3 million euros. In 2012, the former Minister of Culture, José Ignacio Wert, wrote a letter to the Cortes requesting the pieces. He justified the return with the fact that their absence left an “empty space” that prevented him from opening the museum, because they occupied a preferential place in the medieval area of the recently reformed institution. At Change.org, more than 20,000 signatures were then collected to prevent the original arches of La Aljafería from returning to Madrid.
The defense of the patrimony became a question of “dignity of the Aragonese”. The president of the Chunta Aragonesista (CHA), José Luis Soro, maintained that the protection of the Aragonese heritage was the vindication of the identity and dignity of Aragon. “They want to steal what is ours from our noses. It is an unacceptable colonial treatment,” he added in the middle of the debate. “The most elementary criteria of conservation and unity of the historic complex make it not only advisable but essential that the arches remain in the place of which they physically and historically form part, such as the Aljafería Palace,” wrote Chesús Yuste (CHA) in this regard, before submitting to the Culture Commission of the Congress of Deputies their demands to put an end to the illegal situation of this group of returned and retained assets. They are the precedent of the trip of the Lady of Elche (4th century BC), which Miquel Iceta agreed with the mayor of the Alicante town and of which the minister has already started to resign before the political consequences of his movement.
A complicated debate
The Government of Mariano Rajoy explained that the transfer was in process, but without a specific return date. So they go on. While the MAN claims the return of their properties, from Aragon they demand to activate the necessary procedures for the transfer of full ownership of the precious Islamic arches. Jesús Carlos Sáenz Preciado, professor of archeology at the University of Zaragoza and researcher of the interventions in the palace, indicates that the MAN cannot be dismantled, but he wonders if once La Aljafería has been restored, recovered and revitalized, why should not the arches be in their place of origin? “It is a very complicated debate. The site of the arches is La Aljafería, but they must be returned. Another thing is if there is a change of ownership …”, adds Sáenz Preciado.
The researchers consulted recognize that the debate opened by Miquel Iceta and the resignation of Jiménez-Blanco is important enough to redefine the mission of the National Archaeological Museum before breaking it up and sending, for example, the Visigoth collections to Toledo. The MAN mission crisis in the 21st century happened with the dawn of the Spain of the Autonomies. From that moment on, each of them manages their findings, their heritage and their own story. So what is MAN’s role in this new community with new rules? From the museum they explain that “it fulfills a role of representation of the peoples and cultures that have traced the history of Spain”. They add that the common heritage has a protection that transcends its location. That is why he stays in Madrid.
“That ‘national’ idea built since prehistoric times lacks all sense.” These quotes belong to Manuel Antonio Calvo, a professor at the University of the Balearic Islands, where he is a professor of Prehistory in the Department of Historical Sciences and Theory of the Arts. This specialist in Talayotic culture (developed during the Bronze Age and Iron Age in the Balearic Islands) believes that the transfer of the Lady of Elche to the place where she was found is justified, as is the demand for transfer to Majorca de los Toros de Costitx (5th-3rd centuries BC), made in lost wax casting. “These pieces in the MAN are treated as a decorative addition or a compromise solution that lack a minimum context to be understood,” he explains.
A neutralized museum
The Spain of the Autonomies has neutralized this role of “custodial father and conservator” of heritage. “For four decades they have not received pieces. The autonomies do not need them to take care of their findings, they already stay in the places where they were found. We would have to find a new mission for it to adapt to the times, despite the fact that it has tried to modernize after its reopening, “says Calvo. Faced with this new situation, the MAN has become one more piece: just as a visitor who wants to know the splendor of the old British empire goes to the British Museum, one can approach the National Archaeological Museum to understand a way of telling a Spain that is no longer there .
With the arrival of the Autonomies, the network of museums grew and the Madrid headquarters ceased to be essential for the custody of the past. The best recent example is the seven Celtiberian helmets looted and recovered in Germany, which rest in the Museum of Zaragoza. At no time was it decided to deposit them in the MAN and it was not questioned that their resting place was close to where they were discovered (the city of Aratis, in the municipality of Aranda de Moncayo). This is how the fight for the past and identity centered on a struggle for possession of the original pieces: nobody wants the replicas even though nobody is able to distinguish them, as the Altamira neocave well demonstrates. Could MAN become an archaeological museum of replicas?
No one disputes that MAN is no longer the recovery center of the past and that each autonomous community is sovereign to do so. But this reality questions the custody of the essence of the Madrid museum: as long as its safety is guaranteed, why could the pieces that make up its collection not be exhibited in the place where they were discovered before the birth of the Autonomies. “Although each community writes its own story, we cannot change the things that were done a hundred years ago. We cannot dismantle the MAN … until the politics say so,” says Jesús Carlos Sáenz Preciado. Most of the archaeologists consulted show fear of the audacity to dismantle the MAN as an almost sacred institution, but no one doubts the capacities with which the regions and localities could commit themselves to protect, display and disseminate their heritage among their neighbors.
Specialists such as Manuel Antonio Calvo believe that the interest in knowing the story of the communities prior to their own has grown and should be explained with the original objects that belonged to those. “They are the best way to understand them,” he says. In this way, it would be breaking with the construction of the nineteenth-century national story created by museums a century and a half ago. The new museum paradigm seems different: its own and close story, which generates a sense of belonging, conscience and protection of heritage in the place of origin of the pieces.
Just as assets were concentrated years ago due to the lack of infrastructure —the case of La Aljafería—, now that would no longer be the excuse. “Although we would need to guarantee investment in heritage care,” says Francisco Javier Jover, director of the Institute of Archeology and Historical Heritage at the University of Alicante and responsible for the La Alcudia site, where the figure of the Lady of Elche emerged. more than a century ago. He clarifies that in no case is he in favor of “dismantling any nineteenth-century museum apparatus”, because they have allowed us to conserve and safeguard our heritage. “MAN is an institution of great importance in the Spanish identity, because it represents the set of identities. I prefer that money be invested in research than in dismantling and moving parts in warehouses”, says Jover. Of course, in case the Lady of Elche leaves the MAN, warns that the place where she must stop is in the museum that they have built in La Alcudia.
All this unresolved mess could be summed up in a lapidary phrase from a Manuel Antonio Calvo professor: “Whoever does not understand that heritage is a conflict is that they have not understood anything.”