Idols, Altars, Slippers, and Stockings: Heritage Debates and Displays in Nineteenth-Century Chile

Patience A. Schell* (Corresponding Author)

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


When liberal historian Benjamin Vicuna Mackenna lobbied for support to host an exhibition about Chile’s colonial past, he compared the bringing together of historical objects to the work of a natural historian, who used the fossilized, fragmented remains of a long-extinct creature to imagine its body and its habits. Fragmentary remains are an apt way to describe the raw
material of Chile’s heritage: the new country did not have monumental architecture, the metaphorical equivalent of a perfectly complete fossilized mastodon or tyrannosaurus rex, around which to build a concept of national heritage. The indigenous people who inhabited the territory that became Chile did not leave pyramids behind, like the Aztecs or the Maya, nor did
the colonial period leave a baroque city-scape, as it had in Lima, Mexico City, or Potosı. As the nineteenth century progressed, this lack of grand material remains became more problematic because other Spanish American countries used them as metaphorical foundation stones to new national identities. By the mid-century in other parts of Latin America, the ‘new language’ of archaeology offered evidence that the Maya, Inca, and Aztecs were highly ‘civilised’ peoples, feeding into both nationalism and a re-valuation of pre Columbian remains as having scientific merit. This same language of archaeology, however, situated the indigenous people of Chile, without a written language or grand architectural ruins, in the category of ‘Lower Barbarian’.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)326-348
Number of pages23
JournalPast and Present
Issue numberSuppl. 10
Publication statusPublished - 2 Feb 2015

Bibliographical note

My thanks to Paul Betts and Corey Ross for their invitation to participate in the conference leading to this volume, as well as their comments on the various drafts. I am also grateful to my fellow participants for two days of lively discussions and concrete suggestions, and to Laurence Brown, Till Geiger, Anindita Ghosh, Steven Pierce, and Natalie Zacek for their comments on an earlier draft.


  • Chile
  • heritage
  • Museums
  • natural history


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