Sunday, September 9, 2012

Time Lords in the Lettered City

This afternoon I visited the Penn Museum to see their special exhibition Maya 2012: Lords of Time. I had high hopes for the exhibition in spite of the unfortunate way in which the title evokes Doctor Who but left disappointed, even though the exhibition includes a few really stellar objects.

The exhibition is ostensibly about the Maya calendar and about debunking the dramatic misunderstanding thereof that has given rise to apocalyptic myths that predict the end of the world this December. The first gallery displays a few objects from the ancient Maya but without giving a lot of context either about the civilization or about the calendar. The lack of cultural context continues throughout such that it is possible to come out without having a particularly solid sense of how the ideas of the calendar and of deities, which are the major threads, relate to the objects on display or fit into a culture as a whole. The labels are very simplistic and ultimately the take-away message is that the Maya were a people with a calendar.

It wasn't clear who the intended audience was because the level seemed appropriate for school-aged children (or fans of MythBusters) but did not offer the clear kind of narrative that one would expect, especially for that age group.

Other interpretive materials, while illustrative, are overwhelmingly kitschy.

The use of light and video is not judicious enough for it to have a real impact even where it might, such as in this display of a calendar stele, the elements of which are, quite literally, highlighted. (I really had to drop the quality and length of both videos to be able to upload them.)

To be fair, some of the labels were quite good and I took images of them thinking I might even be able to use in teaching; and that wasn't a small part of what was on my mind today.

The major reason for my visit to the exhibition was (and apologies for what will be repetitious for anyone who has been reading for a while) the combined medieval-colonial intro course I co-teach in my department at NYU. Even though I don't teach the colonial piece of it, I was hoping to see objects related to the part of the course with which I am less familiar and comfortable and perhaps discover some new ways of connecting this material with my medieval part of the course. In that respect, I had some success.

The most effective element of the interpretive materials was a long timeline that pointed out issues of kingship in about the ninth century that were unfamiliar to me but that could be related to the roughly contemporaneous Abbasid revolution and the subsequent various Umayyad and taifa-period changes in leadership in the Muslim West. The timeline was also, perhaps unsurprisingly, the most effective place in which questions of calendar systems was illustrated; events were listed according to Gregorian and Maya dates and any event where there was a question about how the dates were recorded in the two systems were particularly highlighted. Another point of contact was illustrated in an object contains a band of pseudo-heiroglyphs, which might tie in nicely with the moment when I introduce the idea of pseudo-Arabic script as a prestige kind of decoration.


Just a final pair of images, a lovely juxtaposition that didn't occur to me until I got home and downloaded the pictures. At left are masks used in contemporary celebrations among people who still practice aspects of Maya culture and at right is a late eighteenth-century manuscript (totally out of focus because my iPhone battery died right as I took the picture) copy of the Chilam Balam, a Mayan book of prophecies.

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