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The Brooklyn Museum Gives Indigenous Pieces Back To Costa Rica

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Costa Rica's ancient indigenous people made pots from clay and from stone. They carved figurines and tools. And for nearly a century, the Brooklyn Museum had many of these artifacts in its collection. Recently, it announced that it had repatriated more than 1,300 objects to the Museo Nacional de Costa Rica.

NANCY ROSOFF: I view it as a win-win situation.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Nancy Rosoff, senior curator for the Arts of the Americas at the Brooklyn Museum. She initiated the reparation after she was hired in 2001.

ROSOFF: As I was in storage surveying the collections, I noticed that there was a great deal of material from Costa Rica. And as I looked more closely, I saw a lot of it was ceramics that were not in great condition. There was stone tools that an art museum would never display.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But those ceramics had high research value, so Rosoff reached out to the Museo Nacional de Costa Rica.

ROSOFF: It's a museum that's devoted to the antiquities of Costa Rica. I think they'll be better equipped to make the necessary repairs to some gorgeous ceramics and stonework that we just were not equipped to do here.

JAVIER FALLAS: (Through interpreter) Many of these archaeological pieces - we didn't have specimens like them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Javier Fallas, a curator at the Museo Nacional. He's excited about one artifact in particular, a large carved headstone that wasn't finished.

FALLAS: (Through interpreter) This headstone allows us to understand how artisans created them in the ancient times. At the scientific level, it's a very important aspect to understand how they worked on the stone.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That unfinished headstone is in the second wave of repatriated objects from the Brooklyn Museum. The first was about a decade ago. The objects were donated by the widow of Minor Cooper Keith, an American tycoon involved in the founding of the United Fruit Company, which exported bananas at the turn of the last century. Keith also built Costa Rica's railroad and exploited workers on his way to fortune and fame. Writer David Kopel spoke to the NPR podcast Throughline about Keith's legacy last year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR PODCAST)

DAN KOEPPEL: In the banana world, the workers are slaves. I mean, that's really the only way to put it. It's an era of sanctioned slavery with the support of the United States government.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Keith's workers uncovered ancient artifacts while clearing land in Costa Rica. He shipped around 16,000 objects back to his home in New York. About a fourth of those ended up at the Brooklyn Museum. While there are no plans for further repatriation at the moment, Museo Nacional's Javier Fallas hopes that other museums take a similar initiative with their collections.

FALLAS: (Through interpreter) It means recovering part of our ancient history, part of our pre-Colombian history. It allows us to understand different social and political aspects of the ancient civilizations, primarily from the Caribbean part of Costa Rica.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says after this latest batch of artifacts is fully catalogued, they'll likely go on display to the people of Costa Rica as the national treasures that they are.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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