Point your compass toward Boston and run, don’t walk, to the Museum of Science, which has just unveiled Maya: Hidden Worlds Reveals, a gem of an exhibition that runs until spring 2015.
Filled with more than 250 artifacts, towering life-size replicas of temples and monuments, dozens of interactive displays, and video interviews with world’s leading archeologists and scientists, this extraordinary show is sure to fascinate museum-goers of all ages and will leave you wondering why it took so long for someone to devote a show to the extraordinary Maya.
At its peak during its Classic Period (250-900 AD), the Maya civilization was made up of a sprawling network of cities and villages that spanned Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, western Honduras and the Yucatan Peninsula.
Their achievements were equally expansive. The Maya were brilliant architects, whose limestone pyramids rose like mountains from the jungles of Central America and were constructed without the benefit of the wheel or draft animals. Deeply religious, the Maya also closely examined the heavens for signs from the gods, and in so doing, became extraordinarily sophisticated astronomers who accurately estimated solar eclipses and other celestial events. (They were aided by their numbering system that included the concept of zero as early as 36 BC) We still use their calendar today. They developed the first and only written language with more than 1,000 glyphs in pre-Columbian Americas.
They even invented the rubber ball.
So what happened to their civilization? Did the ancient Maya simply abandon their cities in the eighth and ninth centuries AD? Were they lost to warfare?
Maya: Hidden Worlds Revealed investigates questions that have long vexed scientists and historians, and it includes new scientific evidence that suggests a severe and prolonged drought led to the demise of the great Maya civilization. The show also transports visitors back in time to experience what daily life must have been like for both powerful rulers and their subjects by recreating much of the Maya’s glorious sites with replicas of altars, massive friezes, royal tombs, and temples. The guy gazing upward at the reproduced section of famous frieze from the El Castillo right next to you may be sporting a Red Sox sweatshirt, but you’d swear you were in Xunantunich.
Many of the artifacts—jewelry, religious relics, pots, jade beads, among them—have never been on view in the United States prior to this exhibit, which made its debut at the Science Museum of Minnesota. (The show will also travel to the San Diego Natural History in Museum in June 2015.)
Mega shows can overwhelm. Not here. The exhibition is organized by theme—“Watching the Skies,” “Death and the Afterlife,” “Master Builders,” and so on—allowing museum-goers to delve more deeply into all or a particular part of Maya’s multifaceted culture that appeals to them. The liberal and carefully choreographed use of videos also guides visitors, so you feel as though you’re on a personal tour with smart curators who make you want to know more. I was particularly delighted with Dr. Jaime Awe, director of the Institute of Archeology in Belize, whose knowledge and boundless enthusiasm for the Maya is impossible to resist.
Kids, meanwhile, will be enraptured with the show’s never-ending array of activities, from DIY temple building to interactive games that allow them to create, then print out, their own glyphs, compute their birthdays Maya-calendar style or heft a solid rubber ball that would have been used during soccer-like matches.
Much of a museum’s mission is to make people care about the past. And as I made my way through each room of Maya: Hidden Worlds Revealed, I felt growing sadness for what’s been lost. Demise by drought is one thing. But loss to human ignorance and cruelty is harder to abide. After defeating the Yucatan in the 1500s, Spanish priests burned all but just four of the Maya’s written codices. My heart leapt momentarily when I saw two in a case. They turned out to be reproductions (displayed alongside a quote from Diego de Landa: “We burned them all, which they (the Maya) regretted to an amazing degree, and which caused them much affliction). Still, even gazing at these codices, filled with exacting computations for a solar eclipse, was enthralling.
Much of ancient Maya civilization may have been lost under a tangle of vine-covered temples, caves, and mystery, but it would be a grave mistake to write it off as extinct. To make the point, the exhibition concludes with a display of huipiles, the colorful and intricately embroidered blouses worn in Central America today that are strikingly similar to images created by the ancient Maya. We learn about the connection between the Maya’s sophisticated economies and today’s village markets. Video interviews with young people from Central America talking about their Maya heritage also underscores the point that what remains must be honored. This exhibition does a fabulous job in doing just that.
Maya: Hidden Worlds Revealed runs through the spring 2015. Admission will be by timed ticket only and includes a separate ticket for general admission to the Museum of Science, Boston that can be used on the same day of a visit or within six months. For more information or to reserve tickets, visit http://www.mos.org.