Words at Work: Critical Content Analysis of a Colonial Latin American Art Exhibition

Masten, Kristy
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After decades of calls for museums to engage in more critical and transformative practices, this study seeks to investigate the position of a Texas museum in its presentation of colonial Latin American art, looking specifically at the interpretive texts in the exhibition and how they treat Indigenous culture. Using critical lenses, I examined the labels presented in the Blanton Museum of Art's exhibition Mapping Memory: Space and History in 16-Century Mexico to interpret and contextualize a series of 16th-century maps made by Indigenous artists, the Relaciones Geográficas (RG), attempting to answer the following research questions: What do the written interpretive labels portray about the culture of Indigenous peoples as represented in the historical objects on display? Within the content and language of its interpretive labels, what underlying perspectives emerge concerning the Relaciones Geográficas maps as objects of historical culture? Using a qualitative critical content analysis methodology, I followed an inductive process to analyze the title, thematic, and object labels within the exhibition. Six themes emerged. Themes addressing the first research question include: (1) RG maps provide opportunities to learn about Indigenous cultures, (2) Indigenous cultures of the early colonial era are complex, and (3) and RG maps are to be understood within a Eurocentric historical framework. Themes addressing the second research question include: (1) an academic perspective concerning colonial era culture and history, (2) an adherence to dominant culture positions in regards to Indigenous cultures, and (3) the contemporary valuing of Indigenous-made RG maps.

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art museum, critical theory, exhibition, Indigenous, Latin America
Interdisciplinary Learning and Teaching