The Treasure That Fell From The Sky | Translation

The Treasure That Fell From The Sky | Translation


► Click here to return to the episode official page, or here to see all the episodes.

► Join Deambulantes. Our membership program help us continue covering Latin America.

►Do you listen Radio Ambulante to improve your Spanish? We have something extra for you: try our app, designed for Spanish learners who want to study with our episodes.

Translated by MC Editorial

[Daniel Alarcón]: Hello. This week we continue our campaign. Our goal is to raise $60,000 in the next 2 weeks. We are a non-profit organization, and the support of our community is vital to fund our upcoming season. If you are a loyal listener of our podcasts and haven’t supported us yet, today is the day. Join Deambulante, our membership program. Any donation counts, whether it’s a one-time contribution or you decide to make it recurring. Of course, if it’s recurring, it helps us a lot. And if you’re already a Deambulante, thank you very much! Maybe you could spread the word. Help us fund our next season! You can donate at A thousand thanks!

This is Radio Ambulante from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón.

[Lorena Pechené]: I want to invite you to explore it. First, I would like to invite you to touch it.

[Daniel]: This is Lorena Pechené, a guide at the National Museum of Colombia, in Bogotá. She is showing one of the most important pieces of the collection to some visitors. One of them is Jefferson Ramírez, a Colombian journalist and producer of this story.

[Lorena]: What temperature is it?

[Jefferson Ramírez]: It is cold. Pretty cold.

[Lorena]: And is that cold from the object or from the building? Because this building is pretty cold.

[Jefferson]: I think mainly the object. And it is very irregular. Look how the base is very flat compared to the rest.

[Daniel]: This is the first piece you see when you enter the museum. It is right in the middle of the building. And it is special, among other things, because it is the only one in the permanent exhibition that you are allowed to touch.

[Lorena]: What is the texture like?

[Jefferson]: It feels rough to me, very fragmented

[Lorena]: OK, now smell your hands. If you think of an everyday smell, what does it smell like?

[Jefferson]: Like coins or keys.

[Lorena]: Right. I was once told that my hands smelled like bus handrails. That made me laugh.

[Daniel]: The unmistakable smell of metal. And in fact, this object is composed of just over 92% iron and almost 7% nickel, both very resistant elements.

[Lorena]: Does anyone have a coin so we can hear how it sounds?

[Visitor]: Ready…

[Lorena]: Go ahead.

[Archive soundbite: metal sound]

[Lorena]: Aha, now try it on the bottom, to see whether it sounds the same.

[Jefferson]: It sounds more… it sounds different.

[Lorena]: What does that sound tell us? Is it solid or not?

[Jefferson]: Yes, when you touch it, it feels quite compact, but when you hit it, you feel as if it were not completely compact inside, but maybe a little more hollow.

[Lorena]: As if it had small holes, perhaps.

[Daniel]: But what makes this piece so special is that it is not from this world… well, not from this planet.

More than four billion years ago, when the Solar System was being born, a huge piece of metal broke off from the center of a forming planet. No one knows how long it was moving through space, but at some point, it entered the Earth’s atmosphere and then became a meteor. Traveling at a very high speed, the pressure around it increased and therefore also its temperature, until it became a very bright ball with a tail… what you and I would call a shooting star.

If that object had been made of rock, it would have shrunk or even completely disintegrated before hitting the ground, but since it was made of metal, it fell almost intact, weighing around 700 kilos, on our planet. Exactly, and just by chance, near what is now a municipality called Santa Rosa de Viterbo, in Colombia. As soon as it fell to the ground, it could be called a meteorite.

Since it was found at the beginning of the 19th century, the value of this meteorite has been much more than scientific. Not only was it the first piece acquired by the museum when it was founded in 1823, but it became a national treasure, part of the patriotic story of a republic that had just been born. And it remained such an important symbol that, in mid-2023, it sparked a discussion about how visitors to the National Museum would be allowed to interact with it.

We’ll be back after a break.

[Daniel]: We’re back with Radio Ambulante. This is Jefferson Ramírez. 

[Jefferson]: The first time I saw the Santa Rosa de Viterbo meteorite was in 2016. From an early age, I have always liked everything related to outer space—galaxies, black holes, stars and, of course, meteorites. I had a conventional idea of space until I was 18, when, after several surgeries, I became blind, and that is why being able to interact with this extraterrestrial rock is so important to me. On my cell phone I have an app that describes photos using artificial intelligence, and this is what it says about one of the photos I took of the meteorite:

[AI]: The image shows a large piece of what appears to be a meteorite or space rock that is dark in color and irregular in texture, with a rough surface and porous appearance. It is placed on the floor, which appears to be made of stone tiles. 

[Jefferson]: It’s a good description, yes. But, of course, imagining it will never be the same as feeling the texture of the metal, how cold it is, its irregular shape, with peaks and indentations. In addition, it has two very smooth and neat parts that are easily different to the touch from the rest of the surface. Those are cuts: a large one at the base, where it rests, that covers its entire diameter. And another, smaller one, on the side.

Although I have known about the meteorite for a while, I am still impressed by its origin. Knowing that that piece of metal traveled through space for years before reaching Earth never ceases to amaze me. And not just when I touch it. I am also very excited to realize that other people, with and without disabilities, are as surprised as I am. I like to perceive that reaction they get when they look at it, when they touch it, when they try to lift it to calculate its weight.

I met Lorena Pechené, the guide we heard at the beginning inviting me to interact with the meteorite, in 2015. She was my Braille teacher at the Rehabilitation Center for Blind Adults, in Bogotá. She has straight, black hair, she is of medium height, and she is always laughing. Strangely, she hated museums for most of her life. That feeling started when she was seven years old and her school took her to a museum.

Lorena is also a visually impaired person. She was born blind, and she describes that first experience in a museum as unpleasant: 

[Lorena]: Yes, the fact that my friends, my classmates, and my teachers could explore physical space, they could know what it was, and I was just limited to walking hand in hand with the teacher, it was such a horrible experience that it left a mark on me. 

[Jefferson]: Because, of course, unlike her classmates, who did not have visual disabilities and toured the entire museum independently, she felt excluded. As is usually the case in museums, she couldn’t touch the pieces to form images of them, and there was no one who took the time to describe them to her and give her an idea of what they were like. 

[Lorena]: So I said, “No, museums are not spaces where I can be, where I…” I don’t fit in, right? That’s what I thought. So that’s why they also seemed like extremely boring spaces to me. And for that same reason, I never considered the possibility of being in a place like this.

[Jefferson]: In 2016, a year after we met, an open call was sent out for a training and volunteering course at the National Museum of Colombia. Students would learn topics such as curating, conservation, accessibility, the museum’s collection, among others. In the end, those who passed the course would have the opportunity to become mediators—which is the most appropriate term to refer to the museum’s guides. It was the second time they adapted the course for people with disabilities, and Lorena and I found out through a message we received from the Rehabilitation Center for Blind Adults.

We decided to sign up. We wanted to learn new things, contribute to the museum’s accessibility process, and have fun. Well, it’s not like Lorena was very excited by the idea of being in a place that she didn’t like, but since she is a social psychologist, she was interested in knowing what this strategy of including people with disabilities in the museum was all about.

The sessions began in April 2016 with another 50 people, three of whom were blind and one was deaf. We had to go every Saturday from 2 to 6 in the afternoon. And at those sessions, we talked about everything—even the building.

The museum had been in several locations until it moved to a place built in the 1870s and which originally served as the headquarters of the old Central Penitentiary of Cundinamarca. It is shaped like a cross, and the center is the very heart of the building: it is a structure known as the panóptico.

[Alejandro Suárez]: These are two Greek words. Pan which means “everything” or “all,” and optikon which refers to vision.

[Jefferson]: This is Alejandro Suárez. Today he is the general coordinator of the Exploring Heritage Program, but at that time he was in charge of the course and the one who told us all about the museum.

[Alejandro]: The prisons of that time—and that is why it is called the panopticon—were places that had a central watchtower from which everything could be seen in 360 degrees. And that watchtower was the heart of the penitentiary, of the panopticon.

[Jefferson]: In 1948, it stopped being a prison and became the National Museum of Colombia. That central watchtower became the transit point where the different rooms of the place are connected, and right at that point is the meteorite. 

[Alejandro]: So the first thing you see and encounter when you enter the museum is the aerolite, because that hub, together with the aerolite, form the heart of the museum.

[Jefferson]: I first saw it during that course. There they call it an aerolite, a word that also comes from the Greek: aer, which means “air,” and lithos, “stone.” A stone in the air. This is how they referred to it since it became the first piece of the more than 17 thousand that the museum has acquired in 200 years. The narrative around it, and the most detailed information available about its history, was strengthened thanks to a visual artist, María Elvira Escallón.

[María Elvira Escallón]: I didn’t know about the meteorite; I hadn’t seen it. I crossed the hall, and since the meteorite is the first thing you see when you come into the National Museum, I was completely enchanted by that meteor—but I thought the meteor was a stone. 

[Jefferson]: Soon she learned it wasn’t, but she was so shocked by this giant metallic thing that she wasn’t disappointed.

[María Elvira]: In any case, I loved its shape. And I started to investigate and learned that the meteorite had fallen in Santa Rosa de Viterbo, Boyacá.

[Jefferson]: On Holy Saturday of 1810. That is the information the museum has. It is impossible to confirm that that was the exact date when it fell, and in fact there are several pieces of information that are difficult to corroborate precisely. They seem more like founding myths than facts. That date, for example, Holy Saturday 1810, is exactly twelve weeks before July 20, when the cry for independence was raised in Bogotá.

So let’s start with something we de have a record of: a name.

[María Elvira]: The meteorite was found by a girl named Cecilia Corredor.

[Jefferson]: According to the story told in the Museum, Cecilia was preparing a sancocho just then, and when she was about to kill the chicken for the recipe, it ran away and Cecilia began to chase it. This is how Alejandro Suárez, the director of the museum’s Exploring Heritage Program whom we heard before, tells it.

[Alejandro]: And they‘re running around, running and running. And the chicken goes into a bush, and Cecilia Corredor begins to touch, to feel everything that was behind the bush, and she finds a very cold stone, very, very cold, very big, very heavy. And she finds the aerolite.

[Jefferson]: But she didn’t know what that strange stone was, much less where it came from. So, to try to understand, Cecilia and her family called the town priest. He did not suspect the extraterrestrial origin of the object either; he had no way of knowing, but it was, indeed, very particular.

[María Elvira]: And I don’t know how they did it, because it weighed 700 kilos, but they took it to town.

[Jefferson]: That weight is approximately equivalent to two horses.

[María Elvira]: But no one knew what it was, so they didn’t know what to do with it. It ended up serving as an anvil in the town blacksmith’s shop.

[Jefferson]: And not much else happened for almost 13 years, until 1823, when the first written records about it appeared. By that time, the independentistas had won the war and a republic was being formed. The government, headed by Simón Bolívar, had commissioned two scientists, one French and one Peruvian, to conduct an expedition for the purpose of recording what mineral resources the territory had. They also had the mission of collecting pieces for the collection of the future National Museum of Colombia.

Scientists came to Santa Rosa because of rumors that there was an iron mine in the area, but instead, they found the metallic meteorite in the town’s blacksmith shop. They knew right away what it was, and how special it was. Meteorites fall to Earth all the time, but most of those found are made of rock. Only 28% of the meteorites that fall to Earth are of this particular type, metallic. They had found a perfect piece for the museum.

Here, María Elvira reads a note from the French scientist’s diary:

[María Elvira]: We brought the girl, Cecilia Corredor, whom we considered the owner of the mineral, and we paid her the price she asked for: 100 francs.

[Jefferson]: But there was a problem. María Elvira continues reading the diary:

[María Elvira]: We realized, somehow too late, that in view of the state of the roads and means of transportation at our disposal, it was impossible to carry it, due to its weight.

[Jefferson]: They had to leave it there. But the people of Santa Rosa de Viterbo had found out that someone had paid for it. María Elvira says that other people had similar, much smaller pieces that must have fallen in the same meteor shower. They had collected them without knowing what they were, but now they knew they could get money for them. 

[María Elvira]: The peasants, with their eyes wide open, realizing that this was great treasure, ran to offer theirs to the scientists as well, and a dozen of them were bought.

[Jefferson]: Some of them were sent to one of the leading scientists of the time, Alexander von Humboldt, for study.

The townspeople somehow took the giant meteorite out of the blacksmith shop and placed it in the middle of the central plaza. In front of the church and next to a fountain. María Elvira found a photo of that monument in her research. 

[María Elvira]: That image is the meteorite mounted on a very atypical type of column, a bit disproportionate because the body of the column is very short. It looks fat. But to me, it seemed like the most charming image in the world. That was a powerful thing for me.

[Jefferson]: The metallic meteorite weighing more than 700 kg remained in Santa Rosa de Viterbo for 83 more years, until 1906, when Henry Ward, an American known in his circle as a meteorite hunter, arrived in town. Ward was over 70 years old at the time and was engaged in collecting these types of objects for his private collection, which was the largest of its kind in the world. He had become a millionaire selling them to other collectors and museums. He knew about this gem from the records that other scientists had left decades earlier, so he came with the idea of taking it… Oh!—and he didn’t speak Spanish.

When he saw the meteorite perched in the middle of the square, on top of a column, he knew it would not be easy to take it to sell it to a museum, as he had imagined.

[María Elvira]: But a few minutes later, he had a plan. So he went to talk to the governor and told him, “That meteorite doesn’t look good in the plaza. I’m going to propose an exchange.”

[Jefferson]: He told him he would trade it for some money and a bronze statue of General Rafael Reyes, then president of the country, who had been born in Santa Rosa de Viterbo. 

[María Elvira]: Well, imagine, you’ll look very good having exchanged a stone for the bust of the president of Colombia, who is the favorite son of Santa Rosa de Viterbo. And so the Governor… what do you think he said? He accepted the trade, of course, he accepted the exchange. 

[Jefferson]: And steps were taken for the meteorite to become the property of Henry Ward.

This is an excerpt from a letter Ward wrote to his business partner, telling him what he paid for it:

[María Elvira]: “My piece must have cost me between 1,800 and 2,000 dollars, but it is,” he says, “dirt-cheap at that price.”

[Jefferson]: In other words, a bargain. Ward, of course, had his picture taken next to his new acquisition. In it he appears in a black suit and a light hat. He has a white beard. He is resting his right leg on the base of the column, as if he were marking his ownership of the meteorite.

The governor, who did not know what a bad deal he had made, sent soldiers that same night to knock down the column, lower the meteorite, and hitch it to a group of eight oxen that would take it to a train station. No doubt they planned to take it out to sea and then to the United States by boat.

But when the meteorite passed by a train station near Bogotá, a journalist named Quijano Mantilla noticed and alerted President Reyes. The president, who had not the slightest idea of the agreement with the governor, immediately prohibited the meteorite from leaving the country. He sent the police to the station to take it from Ward and take the piece to Bogotá. The journalist told the news in the Bogotá newspaper El Mercurio and concluded with this:

[María Elvira]: “The Government of the Republic does very well in not allowing the disposal of what has fallen to us (no metaphor) from the sky.”

[Jefferson]: But the meteorite hunter did not sit idly by. Arguing that he had documents validating the exchange, Ward got Carlos Cuervo Márquez, the Minister of Public Instruction, which was like the Ministry of Education, to authorize him to take a 100-pound piece of the meteorite for scientific purposes. Ward said this to his partner in a letter:

[María Elvira]: And he says, “That meteorite is mine by all rights, human and divine.” 

But removing the 100-pound fragment required a special machine that took 14 days to cut it. In the end, the piece turned out to weigh more—about 300 pounds, which is about 140 kilograms, and Ward estimated that he could charge over $84 thousand dollars for it. 

[Jefferson]: Minister Cuervo Márquez, with government backing, wrote an official document authorizing Ward to remove the enormous piece of meteorite.

The piece that remained, which is the one in the National Museum, ended up weighing 411 kilograms, and that is why it has a cross section at the bottom. But as if that weren’t enough… 

[María Elvira]: Mr. Ward cut off that little… piece, like a bump the meteor had, and wrapped it and sent it as a gift to Cuervo Márquez.

[Jefferson]: So the smaller cut that can be seen is really proof of the meteorite hunter’s gesture of gratitude to the minister for letting him take such a treasure. To date, the whereabouts of that fragment is still unknown.

A few months after returning with his loot to the United States, Ward was killed by a car in one of the first automobile accidents on record. But not before cutting that large piece of 140-kilo meteorite into several pieces and selling them to different institutions: Harvard University, the Smithsonian Institute, the Museums of Natural History in New York and London, the Field Museum of Natural History of Chicago, among others.

But there were also pieces that ended up in private collections. Recently, a website that sells extraterrestrial rocks offered two certified fragments of the Santa Rosa meteorite: one weighing 194 grams and the other 332. 

[Jefferson]: During her research, María Elvira went to three of the museums that have fragments of the meteorite in the United States. The one she remembers the most is one from the Field Museum in Chicago, which is the largest outside of Colombia: 100 kilograms.

[María Elvira]: It is very impressive. They told me, “You can see it, photograph it, but you can’t touch it.”

[Jefferson]: At least not without gloves and special tools, and under controlled storage conditions. An important detail because, as we already mentioned, the fragment that is in the National Museum of Colombia is the only one of that meteorite in the world that can be touched directly.

And in Santa Rosa de Viterbo they were left without a meteorite and without the bronze statue of President Reyes that Ward had promised them, because there are no records that it ever arrived. However, they made a replica of the meteorite and their own statue. Today, both are in the central plaza. 

[Jefferson]: So let’s go back to Bogotá. To graduate from the mediation course, Lorena Pechené and I took a final test in December, 2016. It consisted of telling the story of the museum with the meteorite in the middle of the story, inviting visitors to interact with it. We were nervous. 

We had to be clear, precise, dynamic, and generate a pleasant experience for visitors. Fortunately, the meteorite helped us break the ice. We passed and became two of the museum’s first mediators with visual disabilities.

After that, Lorena stayed fully associated with the museum. I focused on my work as a journalist. But I have returned to that place several times to do this story, and I always see the same reaction from visitors.

When they see the meteorite for the first time, they seem cautious, quiet, many with their hands crossed. In front of them there is a rock that does not attract much attention. But then, by inviting them to hear its story, to come closer and touch it and interact with it, the experience totally changes:

[Visitor 1]: It looks like a stone. 

[Visitor 2]: Just looking at it, it looks like a stone, yes.

[Visitor 3]: It smells like rust, yes, like a coin.

[Visitor 4]: It smells like blood, too.

[Visitor 5]: Like blood

[Visitor 6]: When I get a bloody nose, that’s what the blood smells like.

[Visitor 7]: It’s like iron, right? Well, it gives the impression of being iron. It’s so cold.

[Visitor 8]: Well, it’s strange because I thought it was made of rock or something else, not iron, I wouldn’t have guessed that.

[Visitor 9]: Lift it? We won’t be able to lift it, but we can try.

[Visitor 10]: It’s extraterrestrial!

[Visitor 11]: Well, it makes us imagine all these worlds that exist besides Earth.

[Visitor 12]: Being able to touch a museum piece allows us to sort of create a better bond between us and the pieces. So I think that’s kind of cool.

[Jefferson]: I completely understand all those reactions. Regardless of whether people are visually impaired or not, they get very excited when interacting with it. It has happened to me too, and to Lorena. Of all the mediation exercises she has done with the meteorite, she remembers one in particular, when she welcomed a group of visually impaired children between 7 and 13 years old. 

[Lorena]: And one of the children was very excited. And then he touched the aerolite and I think he wanted to squeeze the aerolite and hug, it and I don’t know what else. 

[Jefferson]: It was not the first time the blind boy had heard about meteorites, but it was the first time he could touch one and realize what it was like.

[Lorena]: I think that genuine reaction seemed so sweet to me; it’s also like, “Wow, what power a piece like this has.” Because, when he figured out that I was the mediator, he said to me, “Teacher, here is the aerolite. Is it the meteorite that killed the dinosaurs? Teacher, and the aerolite…” this, and that, and many other questions. 

[Jefferson]: Then Lorena confessed something to the teacher who was with the group of children.

[Lorena]: I told the teacher, “I think I was like that. I think I was this child.”

[Jefferson]: And if she had had a similar experience when she went to a museum for the first time, if she had been able to touch any of the pieces, know what it was like, most likely she would not have avoided those places for so long.

I share this feeling. When a visually impaired person like me goes to a place where restrictive measures are the common denominator, a place where information cannot be accessed completely, whether by touch or other means, it is as if they shut the doors in your face. Everything changes when the experience is multi-sensory, informative, with fair treatment. Clearly it makes you want to return.

But in mid-2023, a message would threaten all this.

It arrived in the WhatsApp group of museum employees. One of the people who received it was Alejandro Suárez, whom we already heard.

It came from the coordinator of the Department of Educational Communication, and it said something along these lines:

[Alejandro]: “From now on, we can no longer continue touching the aerolite, or at least we cannot tell people to do it, because it was declared National Geological Heritage. I don’t have any more information about it, but I’ll keep you posted.”

[Jefferson]: Alejandro was totally taken aback. He had not heard anything about the decision. For him, who is an expert in heritage issues and currently coordinates a program related to this, declaring a piece of heritage should mean bringing it closer to people, not distancing it with restrictive measures. He didn’t see the point in not allowing it to be touched.

[Alejandro]: I do find it frustrating, because for years it had become a symbol of accessibility. All museums are for people to go and look, but in this one you can come and touch the first piece of the National Museum of Colombia.

[Jefferson]: Lorena found out while he was in the middle of a mediation exercise with the meteorite. She was inviting visitors to touch it when the person in charge of the mediator training processes approached her and gave her the news.

[Lorena]: And I was like, “What?” The first thing I thought was, “What do you mean? We have been touching this thing for 200 years; it has been used as an anvil. It makes no sense, it makes no sense.” Well, to me it doesn’t make any sense. Of course, if you tell me that about a painting, for example, I’ll tell you, “Sure, the light, the atmosphere,” whatever. But we are talking about the aerolite. I mean, come on… I don’t get it, I don’t understand.

[Jefferson]: The person who told her did not have much more information: only that it had been declared National Geological Heritage, and now that was the rule. Lorena didn’t say anything else. Then, when another group arrived for the mediation exercise…

[Lorena]: I told them, “I have just been informed that it can no longer be touched,” just like that. “Take advantage and touch it, because we don’t know whether it’s the last time.” They were like, “What do you mean?” 

[Jefferson]: Lorena couldn’t stop thinking about it. She was upset. But not only because people with visual disabilities cannot interact in a multi-sensory way with the meteorite, but because no one in general can.

[Lorena]: Well, how many people have actually touched one of those objects anywhere else? Yes, it’s one thing to see it in a movie. It’s one thing to see it on video.

[Jefferson]: But it’s another thing to be there, right in front of it. And touch it. And even if that could be done with other objects, Lorena insists that it is not the same:

[Lorena]: Because if it is a painting, what you are going to feel is a canvas, not the art. If we are talking about embroidery, you are going to feel the embroidery and you would easily say, “Oh, this feels like the embroidery at home, it feels like the lace that my mother made.” But you are not going to find, or I have not seen another object, that you say “Oh, this feels like the aerolite.”

[Jefferson]: Her other colleagues also agreed that it was absurd.

[Alejandro]: It is a piece of iron. I mean, I really believe that for an object with those characteristics to wear out to the point that it ceases to exist, who knows how many thousands of years would have to pass, right?

[Jefferson]: And, without agreeing or discussing it among themselves, many of those involved made more or less the same decision.

[Alejandro]: A necessary attitude of disobedience, of saying, “This is not going to happen while I am here.” That is, anyone who wants to touch the aerolite will be able to do so until they actually surround it with glass, a display case, or whatever. 

[Jefferson]: I found out about this ban almost at the same time they did. Of course, I understood the disagreement and confusion about a decision that took us all by surprise. But at the same time, it seemed to me that there was a lack of information… a lot. That’s why I had to ask questions.

[Daniel]: We’ll be back after a break. 

[Daniel]: We’re back with Radio Ambulante. I’m Daniel Alarcón.

Jefferson Ramírez continues the story.

[Jefferson]: After learning about the ban on touching the meteorite, I looked into it and there was still no public information about it. The only thing my acquaintances said was that it had been declared an Asset of Geological and Paleontological Interest to the Nation by an agency called the Colombian Geological Service. What did that mean?

I began to set up interviews with people who, I thought, could give me more information. One of the first people who responded was a former museum official who had worked there for several years and knew the meteorite well. Although she initially accepted the interview, days later she told me that she had been asking her acquaintances about the current situation of the piece and she had changed her mind. She recommended that I talk about other topics, such as the democratization of science or public access to these types of pieces. She added that this approach, and here I quote, “is more interesting than focusing on the meteor, which wastes the name and is problematic.”

What did she mean by “wasting the name”? Why is it problematic? I didn’t insist, but this message, far from persuading me, motivated me to investigate even further.

I spoke to other people who know about heritage and who have worked at the museum. Many agreed that the meteorite, due to its composition, has some features that protect it. One of them gave me an example that caught my attention: after the fire at the National Museum of Brazil in 2018, when more than 20 million pieces of the collection were burned, one of the very few that was saved was a meteorite that—like the one from Santa Rosa de Viterbo—is composed mostly of iron and nickel. Even after being in direct contact with the fire.

This same source also told me that National Geographic has a list of museums where you can touch meteorites. In some, there are even fragments of the Santa Rosa de Viterbo meteorite. This information caught my attention. Artist María Elvira Escallón, whom we heard before, had not been allowed to touch directly the fragments of the meteorite when she visited some of these museums. So I wrote to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C., to the Harvard Geological and Mineralogical Museum, and to the Natural History Museum in London. I wanted them to explain to me what their criteria are for allowing some pieces to be touched and not others.

While waiting for those answers, I went to the National Museum of Colombia to understand how they were dealing with the situation. I talked to this person: 

[William López]: My name is William Alfonso López Rosas, and I am currently the director of the National Museum of Colombia of the Ministry of Cultures, Arts and Knowledge. 

[Jefferson]: William is also one of the creators of the first master’s degree in museology in Colombia.

He began by telling me that he was also taken by surprise by this whole issue. In early 2023, a few months into his position, he met with his team to talk about adjustments that needed to be made to the museum.

At that moment, someone from the Collections Registry area mentioned that a document had arrived a few days earlier. It was from the Geological Service and asked the museum to notify them about the status of the meteorite, which was now a Geological Heritage of the Nation. William asked his team to do that, but then they began to think that they had never taken the same precautions to protect it as they had done with other pieces. 

[William]: The collections of the National Museum are collections that give a precise shape to those national values. So they are collections that must be made known and at the same time carefully protected.

[Jefferson]: Outreach and protection, of course. But the idea they had from the beginning was that the meteorite did not require such protection. 

[William]: And of course, they started a very interesting debate about preventive conservation of an object that doesn’t seem to need protecting.

[Jefferson]: The problem was that the museum was not too clear about what this meteorite protection should be like. They didn’t even know whether it was already worn due to the conditions in which they had it.

So they decided to request a technical report on the subject from the experts: the Colombian Geological Service. The exact question was, “Can the aerolite deteriorate if it is touched permanently?”

One of the people who received that document was Victoria Corredor, a geologist at that institute and leader of the Geological Museum Group. I also spoke with her, and she began by telling me that in 2018, the national government issued Decree 1353. It was important because, for the first time, all things related to the geological and paleontological heritage of the nation were regulated.

This made one crucial thing, among many other things, very clear. This is Victoria:

[Victoria Corredor]: In our legislation, all extraterrestrial material is heritage.

[Jefferson]: That means the Santa Rosa de Viterbo meteorite and many other similar objects in public and private collections. All of them. And that means that they require the same attention and protection as archaeological pieces or emblematic historical buildings.

This way, what happened with this meteorite in 1906, for example, can be avoided.

[Victoria]: So, in the Colombian case, it wouldn’t be possible to sell or trade any extraterrestrial material.

[Jefferson]: And so, since that decree, the Geological Service has had the task of registering all the extraterrestrial pieces in the country. It’s not that that institute is going to collect them, because it really doesn’t own them… but neither do those who have them.

[Victoria]: Because it is an asset of national interest, meaning that it belongs to all the people, you are not the owner of that object, but rather, you become a holder of that object. 

[Jefferson]: This process is called the possession procedure. Once the institution or person asks to be the holder of the extraterrestrial material and the Geological Service approves this, it gives them a number of recommendations on the best way to conserve it. 

[Victoria]: So you are going to commit to keeping it in good condition, under ideal conservation, and that if any scientist, any researcher requires it, you can lend it, facilitate it to benefit everyone’s knowledge. 

[Jefferson]: The initial possession is ten years, and at the expiration of this time, the Geological Service evaluates the condition of the object to decide whether to extend it for another ten years. 

[Victoria]: They have the obligation to maintain it, keep it well, notify us if they are going to move it. They have to keep it in the space they indicated to us, and they cannot perform any intervention on it without notifying us.

[Jefferson]: If this is not met, possession of the object is revoked and the Geological Service becomes its holder.

With these regulations, the National Museum of Colombia stopped being the owner and became the holder of the piece. Five years after the decree was issued, the Geological Service asked them to register it, and that was when the director found out about the situation and decided, together with the conservation area, to ask for a report on the state of the meteorite.

The Geological Service responded a few days later. On the one hand, they told them that, based on an exhaustive study carried out by the National University in 2006 on the composition of the Santa Rosa de Viterbo meteorite, they were able to determine that the piece is in good condition. But, on the other hand, because it is made up mainly of iron, and here I quote, “it can be determined that it is a material susceptible to oxidation and corrosion processes derived from its contact with oxygen and humidity.” So they emphasize the importance of implementing preventive conservation measures to protect it. 

[Victoria]: These are very specific things. It needs to be kept away from humidity. The meteorite is inside a building, but we are in Bogotá, which is very humid. So the humidity of the environment is also a factor to consider.

[Jefferson]: You also have to protect it from permanent touching. 

[Victoria]: One always has fluids on the hands, which can be a factor, and the iron can begin to rust, like our keys, the keys that we touch every day, those also start to rust, and rust. Perhaps in 20 years it will be barely noticeable, but sure, no element is completely inalterable, even if it is very tough. 

[Jefferson]: The Geological Service also made it clear in its report that the meteorite cannot remain as it is. Here I quote their recommendation: “Any preventive conservation measure used to avoid a probable corrosion process will always be the most effective option to protect this type of heritage and avoid its deterioration in the future.”

But before thinking that you actually have to put it in a glass urn, one thing needs to be clarified: In Colombia, objects considered part of the national heritage must have, in addition to a scientific value, an educational and cultural value. The meteorite meets all three, so the decision of how to display it and its interaction with visitors must be coordinated by all parties involved, taking into account each factor.

The Geological Service report is based solely on natural sciences, which, of course, are fundamental. But I still asked Victoria why they didn’t consider educational or cultural aspects in their response to the museum. 

[Victoria]: Because the question they asked us was very specific: Can the aerolite suffer deterioration if it is touched permanently? There is a specific question, we are a State agency, we have to answer specifically what they are asking us.

[Jefferson]: But I insisted because I knew the list of museums that have meteorites that you can touch:

And for that heritage, aren’t those international references that you previously identified taken into account?

[Victoria]: Of course. Of course they are taken into account.

[Jefferson]: Then why do you take the opposite position?

[Victoria]: Well, I insist again that we do not impose a ban. We make some conservation recommendations, from the technical side.

[Jefferson]: She calls them recommendations, but they are recommendations that the museum has to abide by. The Geological Service is the authority on this issue, and if it has already made it clear that the meteorite is at risk, it simply cannot be left exposed as it is. If they revisit the possession in ten years and find that the museum did nothing, they can easily take it away. That is the position of the agency: they have to protect the heritage no matter what.

When the response came from the Geological Service, the museum director was expecting to hear that the meteorite was not only okay, but that it could be kept where it was. This is William again:

[William]: I was surprised when they told me that the rock could possibly have deteriorated in its physical and chemical integrity. So I said, “Well, OK, one thing is what I believe and another thing is what the specialists believe.” As a museologist, as a public official, as director of the museum, I have to heed the warning that specialists issue. I can’t ignore it.

[Jefferson]: He had to abide by the rules. The first and most immediate strategy he implemented was to ask the mediators not to let the visitors touch the meteorite. I questioned him on that decision. At the end of the day, this is the educational tool that best allows you to create a meaningful experience for people.

Considering such an important cultural value, why are mediators and educators instructed to not touch the meteorite and not let others touch it? And it’s all in a spirit of restriction. 

[William]: I agree with you, as a museum educator, but as an official I have no choice but to comply with the rule, comply with the regulations that are sent down by the agency that regulates how to manage those objects.

[Jefferson]: And that is why, on August 2, 2023, he asked the conservation area to design a new setup that would allow the piece to be displayed without affecting its conservation.

And what would that new setup be? Well, it’s not clear.

Among the proposals I heard was to put the meteorite in a kind of underground chamber with a protective glass over it. That way it could be seen from above, but protected from the humidity of the environment. The truth is that it sounds like it would be a conventional glass urn, but in a hole.

I also learned of the proposal to create an exact replica. One made of the same materials and that can be touched. They also mentioned the lunar floor installation at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, where they let you touch a tiny two-centimeter fragment. Maybe they could do the same with the meteorite. But then, would they have to cut another fragment? Or would they leave only that part exposed?

When I interviewed William in October 2023, he still didn’t know what the new installation was going to be, but he hinted that it probably wouldn’t be conventional. 

[William]: The way museums respond is always creative. That is, it cannot be bureaucratic, nor can it be unidirectional. We follow here the fundamental rule of museums: museums are complex. So, that’s why I say that the museum’s response is museological—in other words, complex. 

[Jefferson]: This didn’t really answer anything for me. OK, the solution is going to be complex, but what will it be? William assured me that he will do his best to listen to all points of view and come up collectively with the best strategy.

[William]: I think we should reiterate that we have all our professional willingness and all our curatorial and museographic activity aimed at having the aerolite continue to be a key piece of our process, of the story the museum tells, but also of the very multi-sensory, and always very open and polyphonic approach of our audiences to our heritage.

[Jefferson]: It seemed that everything was going to be very concerted and transparent; that’s what I understood from William’s explanations. But sometimes, questions can make you uncomfortable. After I interviewed him, I continued digging to follow up on the topic. Shortly afterwards, a person from the museum, who preferred not to give their testimony in order to avoid problems, told me that, at a meeting, the coordinator of the Educational Communication department asked them not to give me more information. That what was to happen to the meteorite could not be leaked.

In early February 2024, I received responses from international museums regarding their policies for allowing meteorites in their collections to be touched. Just to review which ones they were: the Field Museum in Chicago, the Museum of Natural History in London, the Harvard Geological and Mineralogical Museum, and the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.

All have fragments of the Santa Rosa meteorite, but none display them to the public. They are small and are only available to researchers, like María Elvira Escallón, who can manipulate them with gloves and special tools, and on clean surfaces. The general reason that everyone shares is that they cannot display every meteorite they have in their collections. They show the ones they consider most significant for different reasons… and yes, some of those can be touched: those that are large, heavy, made of iron, that have important educational value and of which other fragments exist in institutions dedicated to their research.

I asked them directly whether they would display and let the one in the National Museum be touched, taking into account its material, its weight and its cultural importance. The answers were varied: the London Museum of Natural History said that the question was too hypothetical to answer directly, but that the size of the piece would not be a definitive factor in making that decision, but rather its historical and social value.

The Harvard museum responded that they would definitely display it and allow it be touched. The reason: because of its large size and because there are enough protected fragments that are used for research. Although they acknowledge that having it displayed accelerates rust and deterioration, they told me that the public has a right to access this object.

And the Smithsonian, which of all these museums is the one with the largest exhibition of metallic meteorites that can be touched, said simply that its pieces weigh between 88 and 1,167 kilograms, so it can be assumed that they would let the one that is in Colombia, weighing over 400 kilos, be touched.

I went back to the Geological Service with this information. Until that moment, at the end of February 2024, they still had not resumed conversations with the museum about what was going to happen to the meteorite, but Victoria told me that they were willing to compromise. 

[Victoria]: Not to reach any extremes. The ideal would be to find a middle point: both the protection of heritage and accessibility for the user and the public, keeping in mind both the geological side, the cultural side and the educational side of the… well, of the meteorite as such.

[Jefferson]: I told her about the responses from international museums and asked her whether, given these examples, they would be open to letting the meteorite be touched. 

[Victoria]: Mmmm… as long as there are conservation conditions. That is, no, I cannot give you a final answer at this moment, because I don’t have the freedom to do so, but it is an option.

[Jefferson]: I also returned to the museum. After William, the director, clarified that he is the only spokesperson for the institution, that such is their communication policy, he told me that in fact they had not resumed meetings with the Geological Service. They were focused just then on the annual hiring of their staff. Once they resolved that, they could focus on the meteorite issue. Now, regarding the responses of international museums, he was very interested: 

[William]: I would very much like it, if you got these concepts in writing, if you would bring them to the table of negotiations with the Geological Service. And, of course it helps us a lot, it would help us a lot.

[Jefferson]: I agreed to do it. Yes, it is true that this task should be done by the institutions that are involved directly in this issue, but in the end, what I perceived throughout this process is that they are simply complying with what a decree says—a decree that never took into account the particularities of a piece like the Santa Rosa de Viterbo meteorite. And if this research helps them consider other possibilities outside of the restriction, great. After all, it would take thousands and thousands of years for there to be any significant damage to the piece… And that makes me wonder: for whose benefit are we taking care of our heritage?

But a month after speaking with William, the Ministry of Culture asked him to resign in order to begin what they called “a process of administrative transformation.” My sources told me that the hiring issue was a mess and they needed to fix it immediately. For that, they appointed a new director, Liliana Angulo. So far, she hasn’t spoken publicly about how the museum will proceed with the meteorite or whether it is among its priorities. At the close of this story, I still don’t know whether the responses from the international museums that I shared with William were of any use. For now, the meteorite remains in the center of the building, with the instruction for mediators to prevent people from touching it. But some, I am told, continue to disobey.

[Archive soundbite, song]:

[Daniel]: This song is by Jaime Castro and the Filipichines, a group from Santa Rosa de Viterbo that plays traditional carranguera music. In it they mention the meteorite.

[Archive soundbite, song]: Santa Rosa, receptor del meteorito, religión y monasterio donde se hablaba de Dios. 

[Daniel]: After her research, María Elvira Escallón made an artistic display in 2015 at the National Museum, in which she recounted the incredible story of the meteorite.

We sent an email to the new Director of the National Museum asking for her position on what is happening with the meteorite. So far, we have not received a response.

Jefferson Ramírez is a journalist and lives in Bogotá. He produced this story with David Trujillo, our senior producer, and Shayra, his guide dog and faithful companion. This story was edited by Camila Segura and me. Bruno Scelza did the fact-checking. The sound design is by Andrés Azpiri, with original music by Ana Tuirán.

Thanks to Natalia Sánchez Loayza for helping us find key information for this story.

The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Paola Alean, Lisette Arévalo, Pablo Argüelles, Adriana Bernal, Aneris Casassus, Diego Corzo, Emilia Erbetta, Rémy Lozano, Selene Mazón, Juan David Naranjo, Ana Pais, Melisa Rabanales, Barbara Sawhill, Luis Fernando Vargas and Elsa Liliana Ulloa.

Carolina Guerrero is the CEO. 

Radio Ambulante is a podcast by Radio Ambulante Estudios, produced and mixed on the Hindenburg PRO program.

If you enjoyed this episode and want us to continue doing independent journalism about Latin America, support us through Deambulantes, our membership program. Visit and help us continue narrating the region.

Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.



Jefferson Ramírez and David Trujillo

Camila Segura and Daniel Alarcón

Bruno Scelza

Andrés Azpiri

Ana Tuirán

Diego Corzo


Episode 29