Smithsonian Olmec Legacy

Website Search Box
Excavation of Tres Zapotes Monument D, 1939.

National Geographic Society

From left to right: Phillip Drucker, unknown, Eduardo Contreras. La Venta, 1955. (stirling_086, National Anthropological Archives)
From left to right: Phillip Drucker, unknown, Eduardo Contreras. La Venta, 1955. (stirling_086, National Anthropological Archives)

When the National Geographic Society was incorporated in Washington, D.C. on January 27, 1888, its stated goal was to "increase and diffuse the knowledge of geography." One way it met this goal was through the National Geographic magazine, first published in 1888. The Society also supported numerous and wide-ranging scientific expeditions, such as the exploration of Alaska in 1890 by Israel Russell, Robert E. Peary's expedition to the North Pole in 1909, and the excavation of Machu Picchu in Peru by Hiram Bingham in the 1910s.

From 1939 to 1946, the National Geographic Society co-sponsored eight expeditions to Mexico under the leadership of Matthew W. Stirling, Chief of the Smithsonian Institution's Bureau of American Ethnology. The Society contributed $5,000 for the first expedition and more or less equal amounts for subsequent ones. Although it may seem like a small amount by today's standards, it actually represents $64,000 in 2003. The Society also dispatched Richard H. Stuart to join Stirling's team in Mexico. This collaboration was very successful, and Stuart was photographer for all eight expeditions.

There are numerous pieces of correspondence between Matthew Stirling, Alexander Wetmore, Assistant Secretary of the U.S. National Museum at the Smithsonian and Dr. Gilbert Grosvenor, then President of the National Geographic Society, in the Smithsonian Archives, that attest to the collaboration between the Smithsonian and the Society. Some correspondence deals with administrative and financial matters; others address issues of how to publicize some of the finds of the expedition.

After the eighth expedition in 1946, National Geographic Society turned its attention – and its resources – elsewhere. Indeed, research on the Olmec slowed down for almost a decade. Then, in 1955, Robert Heizer, Philip Drucker and Robert Squier headed an archaeological expedition to La Venta. This expedition was a joint endeavor of the Smithsonian Institution, the National Geographic Society and the University of California. National Geographic continues to support Olmec research to this day.

[ TOP ]