Mexico’s National Palace is hosting the grandest Maya exhibit I’ve ever seen. Mayas: Revelation of Time Without End brings together 470 pieces of ancient Maya art as well as a smattering of colonial and contemporary Maya art. Half the items on display are of recent discovery, many being displayed for the very first time. Many other items come from collections of Mexico’s various museums of Maya archeology. I was delighted to see so many pieces from museums I thought I knew well but where I never had access to what was in storage.
“They came out of storage rooms and have been cleaned and restored
for this exhibit,” said Mercedes de la Garza, curator of the exhibit.
Foremost among the storage rooms was the basement of the National Museum
of Anthropology, which holds more items than are on display.
Every visitor will certainly leave with favorite pieces in mind.
Stellar is the Tablet of the Throne, discovered in 2002 in Palenque’s
Temple XXI. The exquisite detail, accompanied by hieroglyphic text,
shows two deities along with Pacal Kin (the Palenque ruler buried in the
tomb under the Temple of the Inscriptions) and two other governing
dignitaries in a ceremony of blood-letting self-sacrifice.
I’m haunted by the life-sized sculpture in limestone of a man who has
just offered his heart in sacrifice. It is on loan from the INAH’s
regional museum in Campeche.
I was most intrigued by two figurines, each about six inches high,
portraying a god embracing a woman. They are so similar that they must
have come from the same potter’s workshop. However, one belongs to the
National Autonomous University of Mexico’s (UNAM) Tlatelolco museum and
the other to the Canton Palace museum in Mérida. They made me think of
the technique developed by Dorie Reents-Budet of using neutron
activation to determine if two pieces of pottery came from the same
workshop or even from the same ball of clay.
A welcomed warming of international relations was palpable in last
month’s inauguration ceremony as well as in the exhibit itself. French
ambassador Elisabeth Beton sat on the speakers’ platform with President
Peña Nieto, governors of states in the Maya area, and the heads of the
National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) and Council of
Culture and Arts (Conaculta). It was a subtle way to underline a warming
in Franco-Mexican relations under Peña Nieto’s presidency.
In his remarks President Peña Nieto said the Maya exhibit will travel
to Brazil and France before returning to tour Mexico. I was pleased to
hear President Peña Nieto recognize the importance of Mexico’s ancient
history when he said: “This exhibit — along with all the other work we
are doing — will be a stimulus projecting Mexico to the rest of the
world. More importantly it will make Mexican’s pride in our roots and
our identity flourish.”
Approximately 20 percent of the pieces on display are on loan from
three Guatemalan museums. This confirms a thawing of relations in
archeological circles where a longstanding irritant has been the display
in Mexico’s Templo Mayor museum of the Nobel Peace Prize medal won by
Guatemalan Rigoberta Menchu. Menchu deposited it there in 1992 saying:
“It will be transferred to Guatemala when conditions of respect of human
rights and peace exist. They do not exist at the present time.” The
medal is still on display but that text has been removed from the
The National Palace is a wonderful place to house this magnificent
exhibit. You enter and leave through side-by-side narrow doors, spanned
by a single arch, between two of Diego Rivera’s murals in the National
Palace’s central courtyard. Set in what seems like a rabbits’ warren of
spacious galleries, with no view to the outside, the exhibit winds
around another of the palace’s many courtyards not even visible to the
visitor until the very end of the exhibit.
Rafael Tovar y de Teresa, President of Conaculta, described the
layout of the exhibit’s division into six sections: the Maya
relationship with nature; Maya community and daily life; the ceremonial
heart of the Maya cities; the Maya relationship with time and astronomy;
and Maya sacred forces — in which two burials are exhibited just as
they were found. The exhibit ends with colonial and contemporary
textiles, musical instruments, and items of religious nature produced as
the Mayas blended with Christianity.
Tovar also gave us the wonderful news that this exhibit is the first
of a series that will be held in the National Palace during this
presidential administration. It will be followed by equally impressive
exhibits of Mixtec and Zapotec cultures, Teotihuacan, the Aztecs,
cultures of Northern Mexico, and the Totonacs.
Mayas: Revelation of Time Without End lives up to Mexico’s enviable
reputation for the quality of its museums — in content, quality of the
displays, as well as a logical progression in the presentation of the
displays. It exceeds other Mexican museums in its friendliness.
Admission is free for all visitors and photography is welcomed (without
flash or tripods). Its schedule brackets Mexico’s busiest family
vacation times. It opened last month before the year-end holidays, and
will close April 27, 2014, after Holy Week. Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.