Rachel Harris-Huffman

Rachel Harris-Huffman

is creating a nonfiction book about the repatriation of looted antiquities

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In the spring of 2018, a discovery was made at the Erie Art Museum in Erie, PA. The museum's original director retired after 49 years at the helm of the institution, and a new director came in, bringing a new staff with him. One of the first tasks of this new administration was a complete inventory of the museum's collections. Tory, the new registrar enthusiastically took it on, and that's when she made the discovery; buried behind sculptures, pots, and artifacts, encased in bubble wrap and tape--was a human skull.

A professor with whom I studied painting and drawing, Michelle Vitali, recently found a niche in forensic art. Over the last few years she had gone from unknown novice to internationally respected forensic artist with a penchant for historical and cold cases. The museum called upon her for help. Michelle did an anthropological assessment of the skull to determine its age (both in terms of the age of the person at death and the age of the skull itself), sex, and ethnicity. She reassured the museum that this skull was not that of a modern human--a concern expressed by the registrar--but an ancient one. At the same time, Tory, the registrar, went digging through the museum's collection records, and discovered the origins of the remains. They had come to the museum as part of a large bequest from a local art and antiquities collector, James D. Baldwin, who purchased them illegally decades ago from a couple of young farmers with land adjacent to the Teotihuacan archaeological site. When the Erie Times News published a story on the find, Michelle shared it to her Facebook page. Intrigued, I contacted her about the case, and we both agreed this was an important story to tell. She, with her obligations as a professor, Edinboro University Forensic Institute co-founder and fellow, and forensic artist, did not have the time to tell it.

But I did.

A few months before I saw the Erie Times News story, I had been injured in a car accident. An inattentive driver rear-ended me. The damage to both cars was minor, but the damage to my body was another story. I did walk away from the accident, but I walked away with a depressed skull fracture, a sprained wrist, and a nasty case of whiplash. This wasn't my first skull fracture, either, which complicated things. It was hard to read, to speak, to remember. Driving was interminably nerve wracking. I was in constant pain and constantly fatigued. For the last few years I had been working as the Education and Outreach Coordinator for Albuquerque's Public Art Program, a job where my list of duties was nearly identical to the list of things I couldn't do anymore. I had to press pause.

With plenty of time on my hands and skulls on my mind, I became fascinated by this stolen skull and its journey from Teotihuacan to Erie, Pennsylvania and back again. I started reaching out to the people involved in her journey, and to my surprise, they gladly offered their stories. This skull became my connection to the world, to people. This story became a tunnel out of my oppressive and isolating brain fog. Researching it gave me a sense of purpose, and the more I learned, the more fascinated and invigorated by telling this story I became.

The characters in this story are far more colorful and complex than I had ever imagined, and include a wealthy collector who was both a product and a victim of his time, a Monuments Man,  a fine artist turned forensic artist, two very different museum directors, a group of welcoming anthropologists from Arizona State University, Mexican government officials, one of the greatest civilizations to ever exist in the Americas and the world, and most importantly, the anonymous skull of a woman of importance from Teotihuacan.

(Oh, and me, too.)

While there is a lot of information on the history and ethics of antiquities collection and repatriation, most of it focuses on works from Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. There seems to be a limitless well of information and opinion on the Elgin Marbles, the Bamiyan Buddhas, and Nazi loot. News stories about misappropriated antiquities are coming out frequently as people from "provider countries" with long and fascinating cultural histories and objects such as Nigeria and China are asking for their artifacts back (or taking them, in China's case). But in all this writing and analysis about antiquities collection and repatriation, there is a dearth of information about the stream of artifacts, including human remains, being taken from Latin America and coming into the possession of American and European collectors and museums. That is a story that deserves to be told as well.

So this is my goal: to write the story of this woman's skull that was taken from her place of rest, and returned more than 50 years later; to write the story of her collector who lived in "a different time"; to write the story of the museum and institutions that brought her here and home again. This book is intended to be written for a general audience to give people who are not involved in museums, collecting, anthropology, or archaeology a peak behind the curtain. The narrative of the skull found at the Erie Art Museum is my jumping off point for discussing related issues of collecting cultural objects and repatriating them to their countries of origin.

I have the beginning of the story, but in order to find the ending, I will need to travel to Mexico City to visit Teotihuacan and to meet with representatives from the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia who now hold the remains. Because I have been unable to work, I need help paying for this trip (and the general costs of research), which is why I have created this Patreon account. Additionally, funds from Patrons will go toward buying resource materials, traveling to meet with experts, working with an editor, etc. In exchange for assistance in continuing my research, I am happy to offer rewards including postcards from Mexico, original art photography, and insights into my research and writing process and progress.


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In the spring of 2018, a discovery was made at the Erie Art Museum in Erie, PA. The museum's original director retired after 49 years at the helm of the institution, and a new director came in, bringing a new staff with him. One of the first tasks of this new administration was a complete inventory of the museum's collections. Tory, the new registrar enthusiastically took it on, and that's when she made the discovery; buried behind sculptures, pots, and artifacts, encased in bubble wrap and tape--was a human skull.

A professor with whom I studied painting and drawing, Michelle Vitali, recently found a niche in forensic art. Over the last few years she had gone from unknown novice to internationally respected forensic artist with a penchant for historical and cold cases. The museum called upon her for help. Michelle did an anthropological assessment of the skull to determine its age (both in terms of the age of the person at death and the age of the skull itself), sex, and ethnicity. She reassured the museum that this skull was not that of a modern human--a concern expressed by the registrar--but an ancient one. At the same time, Tory, the registrar, went digging through the museum's collection records, and discovered the origins of the remains. They had come to the museum as part of a large bequest from a local art and antiquities collector, James D. Baldwin, who purchased them illegally decades ago from a couple of young farmers with land adjacent to the Teotihuacan archaeological site. When the Erie Times News published a story on the find, Michelle shared it to her Facebook page. Intrigued, I contacted her about the case, and we both agreed this was an important story to tell. She, with her obligations as a professor, Edinboro University Forensic Institute co-founder and fellow, and forensic artist, did not have the time to tell it.

But I did.

A few months before I saw the Erie Times News story, I had been injured in a car accident. An inattentive driver rear-ended me. The damage to both cars was minor, but the damage to my body was another story. I did walk away from the accident, but I walked away with a depressed skull fracture, a sprained wrist, and a nasty case of whiplash. This wasn't my first skull fracture, either, which complicated things. It was hard to read, to speak, to remember. Driving was interminably nerve wracking. I was in constant pain and constantly fatigued. For the last few years I had been working as the Education and Outreach Coordinator for Albuquerque's Public Art Program, a job where my list of duties was nearly identical to the list of things I couldn't do anymore. I had to press pause.

With plenty of time on my hands and skulls on my mind, I became fascinated by this stolen skull and its journey from Teotihuacan to Erie, Pennsylvania and back again. I started reaching out to the people involved in her journey, and to my surprise, they gladly offered their stories. This skull became my connection to the world, to people. This story became a tunnel out of my oppressive and isolating brain fog. Researching it gave me a sense of purpose, and the more I learned, the more fascinated and invigorated by telling this story I became.

The characters in this story are far more colorful and complex than I had ever imagined, and include a wealthy collector who was both a product and a victim of his time, a Monuments Man,  a fine artist turned forensic artist, two very different museum directors, a group of welcoming anthropologists from Arizona State University, Mexican government officials, one of the greatest civilizations to ever exist in the Americas and the world, and most importantly, the anonymous skull of a woman of importance from Teotihuacan.

(Oh, and me, too.)

While there is a lot of information on the history and ethics of antiquities collection and repatriation, most of it focuses on works from Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. There seems to be a limitless well of information and opinion on the Elgin Marbles, the Bamiyan Buddhas, and Nazi loot. News stories about misappropriated antiquities are coming out frequently as people from "provider countries" with long and fascinating cultural histories and objects such as Nigeria and China are asking for their artifacts back (or taking them, in China's case). But in all this writing and analysis about antiquities collection and repatriation, there is a dearth of information about the stream of artifacts, including human remains, being taken from Latin America and coming into the possession of American and European collectors and museums. That is a story that deserves to be told as well.

So this is my goal: to write the story of this woman's skull that was taken from her place of rest, and returned more than 50 years later; to write the story of her collector who lived in "a different time"; to write the story of the museum and institutions that brought her here and home again. This book is intended to be written for a general audience to give people who are not involved in museums, collecting, anthropology, or archaeology a peak behind the curtain. The narrative of the skull found at the Erie Art Museum is my jumping off point for discussing related issues of collecting cultural objects and repatriating them to their countries of origin.

I have the beginning of the story, but in order to find the ending, I will need to travel to Mexico City to visit Teotihuacan and to meet with representatives from the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia who now hold the remains. Because I have been unable to work, I need help paying for this trip (and the general costs of research), which is why I have created this Patreon account. Additionally, funds from Patrons will go toward buying resource materials, traveling to meet with experts, working with an editor, etc. In exchange for assistance in continuing my research, I am happy to offer rewards including postcards from Mexico, original art photography, and insights into my research and writing process and progress.


Recent posts by Rachel Harris-Huffman

Tiers
Buddy
$5 or more per month
Booster
$10 or more per month
Supporter
$15 or more per month
Super Supporter
$20 or more per month


Super Duper Supporter
$25 or more per month
The G.O.A.T.
$50 or more per month