Colonialism, defense of sovereignty, wars of conquest over native peoples, struggles for freedom, and various contributions to society are the multiple realities that condense the medals as documentary heritage. Get to know and recognize these distinctive marks for inscribing a social message in the wardrobe.
When we think of the documentary heritage that the General Archive of the Nation (AGN) holds, it is natural to think of textual and even graphic documents, but it is uncommon to imagine that among its collections there are objects that lead us to wonder about what determines the condition of something as a document: this is the case of medals. At this point, it is worth asking, what is a document for you?
If you were to take a look at the dictionary, you would surely find concrete definitions that would refer you to documentary types such as diplomas or letters, or would refer you to some form of document production by pointing to "writings". However, if we look beyond these particular expressions, we can say that a document is a thing or object that has the quality of carrying a message encrypted in some code regardless of the support it has, whether it is tangible, such as a stone, paper, or photographic film, or impalpable and in electrical pulses, such as a digital document, to say something. This concept includes objects as ancient as Sumerian tablets, archaeological remains that allow us to interpret the most ancient civilizations, and the pieces that are the subject of this article.
In this way, we could say that medals constitute a type of document, with very specific symbols, that gives an account of many individual and collective experiences. They tell us about the efforts and work that a person has made to be entitled to wear an object with a certain singular and social meaning. In this sense, medals are also testimonies of processes and events as a cultural device and phenomenon, but also an expression of social and political changes and transformations as an act of bonding and recognition of a community. We can explore this part of reality through the collection safeguarded by the AGN from different sources that have given an account of it. We invite you to explore these multiple possibilities.
Medals, round metal objects, emerged in Europe during the 15th century. At that time, they were used to mint artistic pieces as part of a new art technique, but due to their attractive appearance and the rich materials with which they were produced (such as gold or silver), they became distinctive and a sign of recognition by various social, political, and cultural organizations, among others. Thus, they were given to highlight the work of an individual or institution.
At the beginning of the 18th century, during the colonial period, the monarch Philip V implemented the use of medals in the colonized territories to commemorate royal proclamations, oaths, and other public acts in which tribute was paid to the monarchs and loyalty to the king was reaffirmed, a practice that became common thereafter. In 1780, the Mint put out coins in New Spain as part of an effort to regain control of Manila.
The medals had on the obverse the image of Charles III, identified as "Beneficent Instituidor", and on the obverse, the graphic motifs varied according to the type of recognition, be it effort in textile work, effort in agricultural work, promotion, or revival of commerce in the area, and for those outstanding in combat against the Mohammedan Indians on the island. How many of these medals were minted? Moreover, how many were sent to the governor of the Philippines? Who were the recipients of these awards?
These acts lasted until the mid-nineteenth century when the construction of the new nation required the implementation of various cultural artifacts that allowed identification with ideals such as independence, but also with specific political groups and forms of government. This also happened in cases where the independence of the territory was challenged, as in the case of an invasion or military occupation of the territory.
In 1863, shortly after the military triumph over the Mexican troops, the Regency, erected to govern while a new empire was being installed, used the medals to gain adhesion to the new regime, so it created the Mexican Order of Guadalupe, whose statutes and badges it regulated. One of its documents is a lithograph of the medals, which had "Mexican Empire 1863" written on the back and a picture of an imperial eagle on the front.
On the other hand, once the republican government was reestablished, the creation of medals helped to reinforce patriotism and loyalty to the nation. The federal and state governments issued different medals that recognized the battles fought during the resistance with formulations ranging from those that said "He fought for the independence of his country", to those that explicitly expressed "He fought against intervention and the so-called empire", to those that emotionally stated, "He defeated the traitors and their allies".
However, we can also find those from the Porfirian period that recognized the military work in the combat against the Yaqui and Mayan indigenous peoples in Sonora or the "barbarians" in Chihuahua, which were added to those that commemorated the country's progress and civic anniversaries or were presented in cultural events. Such medals were an important part of the insignia issued by the General Staff Department of the Secretary of War and Navy towards the end of the nineteenth century. Thanks to the private collection of Francisco Bulnes, a Mexican writer, politician, and journalist, we can know these insignia that were part of the general state of military clothing and equipment.
During the 20th century, the use of medals spread to many areas of social, economic, and political life. Governments and private organizations minted a great variety of them to commemorate international, national, and local events. Some of them are in the General Archive of the National History of Mexico's (AGN) collection of Medals and Decorations.
Division General Ignacio Comonfort Medal
Among the insignia stands out one that connects processes of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This is the Major General Ignacio Comonfort medal, on the back of which the inscription "Defense Corps of the Republic. Distinguished services since 1836".
This small chronological and corporate mark is our clue to investigate more about its producer and its meaning. We know that at least since 1939 there was an organization called Cuerpo de Defensores de la República Mexicana y sus Descendientes, which has its origins in the Sociedad de Defensores de la Integridad del Territorio Nacional created in 1856 by Ignacio Comonfort and that a year later, in 1857, changed its name to Sociedad de Defensores de la República desde 1836 a 1848.
It was a civilian body made up of military and civilian personnel who were not part of the Ministry of War and Navy. We now understand that this medal recognizes the membership of this organization and that it must have been one of the highest decorations as it alludes directly to its oldest promoter and was probably issued after 1939.
Ibero-American Exposition Medal
In 1927, the Secretary of Office and Government addressed a letter to the then-director of the AGN to inform him that the Ministry of Public Education was requesting the remission of a collection of the works published by the General Archive to incorporate them into the Ibero-American Exposition of Seville.
This event, inaugurated in 1929, was an event of great importance for that Spanish city, as it sought to strengthen relations between Spain, Latin American countries, Portugal, and the United States.
On that occasion, several pavilions were set up to show the urban modernization and contents on agriculture, industry, commerce, and culture of the city. Participation in such a great event earned the General Archive the award.
Johannes R. Becher Medal
This decoration, created in honor of the poet and politician Johannes R. Becher, has been awarded since 1961 by the civil association, Cultural Union of the German Democratic Republic (Kulturbund der DDR). It recognizes individuals, communities, and institutions for achievements in the fields of art, culture, sports, and recreation.
In 1982, it was awarded to the Ministry of the Interior for the edition of the Florentine Codex, a 12-volume manuscript describing aspects of the life and culture of the ancient Nahuatl-speaking Mesoamerican peoples. The award is distinguished for maintaining its original wooden case and a thick paste.
The Mexican Foreign Service Medal
This decoration, awarded by the Mexican government through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was granted for the first time on August 15, 1946, to recognize and morally reward those Mexican Foreign Service officers who have served for twenty-five years or more on active duty. In 2016, the rules were changed so that the head of the Ministry of State must give this award at a solemn ceremony on September 1.
Article 5 of said regulations stipulate the following characteristics of the medal:
It shall consist of a disc in gold, surrounded by a Mayan fretwork and a concentric stripe in enamel with the national colors. In the center, on pale blue enamel, will appear the silhouette of the National Territory, in navy blue, showing a stylization of the National Coat of Arms;
On the reverse side will appear engraved the legend "MEXICAN FOREIGN SERVICE-25 YEARS", and the medal will hang from a silk ribbon of 37 millimeters in width having in each one of the ends a green stripe of 7 millimeters, which in turn will have in the center a red stripe of 3 millimeters.
The description and its correspondence with the medal that resides in the National Archives' collection lead us to believe that its constitution did not change with the normative update.
The Medal of the National Academy of History and Geography of Mexico
This recognition is awarded by the National Academy of History and Geography of Mexico, founded in 1925 and sponsored by the UNAM, to personalities and institutions with an outstanding professional career, integrity, and appreciation for the history of Mexico and for promoting studies and research work for the benefit of the country.
The award has a cross with the institutional emblem, a heraldic eagle on whose chest is superimposed a shield with the initials of the academy, and a map of Mexico. The shield is framed by a pate cross characterized by the widening of the points and a decoration that alludes to the sun's rays. The upper part is topped by a wreath with laurel and oak leaves, through which passes the ribbon to carry it. A recent version of the insignia is currently being used by the institution.
Medal of the Order of the Liberator
Among the decorations housed in the AGN collection is one dedicated to the liberator Simón Bolvar, whose image is presented in the center of a golden oval. On the inside, there is a dark blue stripe, and on the outside, a golden gleam. The medal is attached to a ribbon in the form of a ribbon with red, blue, and yellow stripes, the representative colors of the Venezuelan flag.
The award dates back to the nineteenth century, but the version we are dealing with corresponds to that of the Law on the Decoration of the Liberator, regulated since 1922. For almost a century, the distinction rewarded services to the Venezuelan homeland as well as outstanding merits and benefits for the community, although it was also possible to give it to foreigners. Can you imagine how it arrived in our country?
The medal is still in force under a new name, since in 2010, it was renamed as Orden Libertadores y Libertadoras de Venezuela to distinguish outstanding individuals and institutions, among other issues, in the struggle for liberating causes, in favor of the environment, self-determination of peoples, and for their contributions to humanity.
Order of Vasco Núñez de Balboa Medal
The Republic of Panama awards the Order of Vasco Núñez de Balboa Medal, a military and colonial ruler recognized for his exploration of the Pacific Ocean. The medal was created in 1937 to recognize effort, dedication, and contributions in the fields of arts, sciences, and letters for the benefit of the community and progress.
The collection includes national medals such as the Ateneo de Ciencias y Artes de México and the National Association of Lawyers, as well as international medals such as the Amigo de Austria, Benementium Praemium Novena Conferencia Internacional Americana and the United States of Brazil, and the one dedicated to the National Journalism Award granted to the Souza-Mayo Hermanos news agency, which was removed from the collection and incorporated into the Hermanos Mayo collection of the AGN.
Through this review, we can see that medals have been a symbol of awards and recognition adopted by various public and private institutions for several centuries, which have been preserved as part of the documentary heritage, in addition to the lithographs that we have as testimony. Whether on paper or metal, medals are and will continue to be a mechanism for inscribing messages in the body and in the vision of the world of those to whom they are addressed and who know how to interpret them. Finally, what do you think is the scope of what it is possible to conceive as a document?