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Nashville's Parthenon Museum considers repatriating pre-Columbian artifacts to Mexico

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

It was Bonnie Seymour's first day on the job at the Nashville Parthenon. Yep, it's a replica of the real thing. She was taking a tour of the museum's collection when, behind a set of purple doors, she came upon hundreds of pre-Columbian artifacts.

BONNIE SEYMOUR: A lot of arrowheads made out of different materials, especially obsidian, hand tools like axes. I have a grinding stone.

DETROW: Immediately, Seymour knew what she had to do.

SEYMOUR: And my first thought, just looking at it, it was just like, well, this can't stay here. This has to go back home.

DETROW: Seymour is the registrar and assistant curator at the Nashville Parthenon's museum. Since she started the job a little over two years ago, she has been on a mission to return the museum's pre-Columbian collection back to Mexico. I asked her why it was so important for her to send the artifacts back.

SEYMOUR: Because they're somebody's history. They're - they represent someone's ancestors, and we're not them. Mexico has a history of people taking their things, and they have huge gaps in their history. And though returning these won't fill those gaps entirely, it will help with, I don't know, assuaging bad feelings and hopefully solving some of the missing pieces.

DETROW: You know, one thing I was looking forward to asking you is that this is a story that's been playing out over several years all over the world, museums large and small. And I think one of the thoughts that a lot of people have is, I remember going to this museum or that museum, and I remember seeing these exhibits and learning a lot about this culture and feeling like I learned something, and I knew something about them, and that opportunity goes away. What is your response when somebody pushes back against this idea, talking about something like that?

SEYMOUR: Well, that is a very hard question. I want people to be able to see these cultures and learn about them. But I also don't think that we should keep things from people when they want them back. A lot of times, these items get to museums in unethical manners, and that needs to be examined. But each case of repatriation is different. There's so many pitfalls in each one, but there needs to be compromise and collaboration and discussion. Overall, these pieces belong to the globe, but they are individual pieces representing an individual culture. And yes, we have buy-in as a visitor, but they have emotional and historical buy-in.

DETROW: Have you gotten any criticism from around Tennessee for this move?

SEYMOUR: No.

DETROW: No.

SEYMOUR: Surprisingly - I was kind of expecting some kind of how could you do this? This is ours. We should keep it - you know, whatever. And it's been totally positive, supportive, happy. I've had people come in and cry when they see it. So it's been great.

DETROW: The items, before their return, there's a special exhibit about this process, all about the items. The exhibition is titled "Repatriation And Its Impact." Can you tell me how you decided on that title, what you're hoping people walk into this thinking about?

SEYMOUR: I want people to come in and know exactly that this is about not just our collection but the world. I want to introduce them to the idea of what repatriation is and that it's not an abstract idea, that it is something that impacts people on a personal level, but it also impacts government and politics and law. But I didn't want to overload people either, so I just picked the name because it was the simplest way of getting at that. And then the exhibit is a way to introduce the idea and get people talking instead of just hearing the headlines on the news, which can be quite negative, and let them know that, you know, museums aren't evil, and they're not trying to keep people's stuff away from them. They really are trying to work this out. It's just messy. And I also wanted to make sure that they knew that these artifacts that I have do connect to a living, breathing, thriving culture. So that's when I brought in Jose Vera and his art. And it's been a great reflection of the ancient and the modern, and it's doing really well.

DETROW: You mentioned the work of a contemporary artist, Jose Vera. Can you explain how that fits into the exhibition?

SEYMOUR: So his work is very eclectic and very mixed media, and he himself is originally from the same area of western Mexico as the artifacts, which was happy coincidence, actually. And he's a local Mexican artist here. He does a lot of murals, and his work is very personal as well. And he brings in elements of his history and his culture into it. So the pieces that he put up represent the people of Mexico. So he's got one I really like that is called "The Founder," which is the - supposed to represent the founder of the Aztec people. So it's this gold and brown and black with glitter and all kinds of stuff and feathers everywhere. And it's huge, and it's great, and it's beautiful. There's 3D elements like 3D printed dragons or serpents that he's put on his pieces, and they all kind of reflect the people that represent the artifacts. So it's been a really good modern and ancient combination.

DETROW: Can you spell out specifically who the items are being returned to and if you know what their plans are yet?

SEYMOUR: Yes. Well, I can tell you who they're going to. They're going to the Mexican Institute of Anthropology and Archaeology. And the plan so far is that the Atlanta consulate's going to come pick them up from us and then at some point bring them to them. And then after that, I don't know. That's the one thing about repatriating something - once it's out of your hands, it's out of your hands. You have no control over what happens.

DETROW: Is there any flip side feeling to that? Like, obviously, you want to do this. You feel very passionately about this. Is there any feeling of, like, this is not my responsibility anymore?

SEYMOUR: Well, it's like, in a way, I kind of - I'm really happy they're going, but in a way, it's like they're kind of like my friends.

DETROW: Yeah.

SEYMOUR: And I want them to have a good life once they leave. So I'm hoping that they will be taken care of, but it's really their responsibility at that point. I don't want to be, like, a helicopter mom to these artifacts, but yeah, I'd like to know, what are you going to do? And, you know, let me know how they're doing, that kind of thing, like, check in.

DETROW: Is there one artifact that you have grown most close to or appreciate the most that you're just going to be, even if you know this is the right thing to do, sad to see go?

SEYMOUR: Yes, it's the Xolo dog. He's like this kind of a basketball-sized fat dog with a grin on his face, and he's still got dirt in his mouth from when he was excavated.

DETROW: Wow.

SEYMOUR: Yeah, I've put him on, like, kind of a special thing in the center, so he's greeting people when they come in. But one thing we're trying to do is try to get two or three pieces 3D printed so that they still have a connection to the people here in the community in Nashville because it's also part of our history now, too. So it'd be nice to have them for educational purposes. And one - that piece is the one I want to get 3D printed the most, so he'll still kind of be here in spirit.

DETROW: That's Bonnie Seymour, she's the registrar and assistant curator of the museum at the Nashville Parthenon. Thank you so much.

SEYMOUR: Thank you. It's been great.

(SOUNDBITE OF ATEEZ SONG, "WORK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.