The Maya civilization built incredible cities, art, an accurate calendar and mathematical systems, yet their complex history and cultural contributions are often glossed over in modern history books.
This marks the Texas debut for the exhibit, and the first exhibit at the Mays Family Center, the most recent addition to the $100 million expansion at the Witte. At 10,000 sq. ft., this is the largest traveling exhibition about the Maya in the United States.
The exhibit features hundreds of historic artifacts and interactive environments that allow visitors to walk through life-size recreations of Maya architecture, decipher hieroglyphs, choose and write their own Maya names, play games, and more.
Countries like Mexico, Honduras are Guatemala, where the Maya civilization once flourished, are “not very far from where we are now. We as Texans are in a unique place to engage with that part of the world,” said Dr. David Stuart, a prominent archeologist who specializes in the study of ancient Mesoamerica, during a recent luncheon held at the Witte.
Experts, including Stuart, have only recently deciphered Maya hieroglyphics, but have discovered that the ancient language is actually related to many modern languages spoken today. Archeologists and scholars continue to decipher ancient documents and learn more about the Mayan culture and history everyday.
The Maya civilization belongs “at the same level as ancient Rome or ancient Greece,” Stuart said. “It has as much personality, nuance and texture as those.”
The blockbuster exhibition has already booked 5,000 San Antonio-area students during the remaining weeks of school before summer break. But the museum expects large crowds, local families and visitors throughout the exhibit’s time in San Antonio.
“This is a whole new world for the museum,” said Marise McDermott, president and CEO of the Witte Museum. “The center’s (size and amenities) allow us to host so many exhibits and events that could never been done before. It has taken us a while to really understand the Maya, and it’s fascinating that we are still learning.”
The exhibit will elevate Maya culture through seven different environments that demonstrate how the civilization developed architecture, stargazing patterns, how stories and traditions were passed down by multiple family dynasties, and the importance of spirituality to their culture.
The Witte will also host Maya Moments, a weekly program that features scholars who will share what they have found or learned during their explorations. Visitors will be able to speak with these experts, ask questions and head back in to the exhibit.
“I ended up going back into another area of the exhibit,” McDermott said. “(Through the exhibit) you’re literally piecing together new information about the Mayans. That process of discovery is very new. We are (taking) part in the Age of the Maya, in the sense that this is a whole new age for discovery.”
The Witte’s established programs, such as Salud, Cocktails and Culture, and their summer camps will be featured to complement the exhibit. Epicurean Adventure, a new culinary partnership with Rosemary’s Catering, will allow parties to rent out the space to explore and experience the exhibit while enjoying a Maya-inspired menu. Though the programs will be hosted throughout the museum grounds, they will always lead back to the exhibit.
Visitors can also experience Maya culture and purchase authentic, artisan textiles, musical instruments, chocolate and coffee at the Mayan Marketplace inside the Mays Center. Linda Gerber, the Witte’s director of retail services, found these items, crafted by modern Mayan men, women and families working in fair trade co-ops, during a recent trip through marketplaces in Guatemala.
“This is not a lost civilization, the Mayans are still very much among us,” McDermott said.
The Maya: Hidden Worlds Revealed exhibit will run May 14-September 5, 2016, inside the Mays Family Center at the Witte Museum. To learn more about the exhibit and related programs, or to reserve and purchase tickets, click here.
*Top Image:In “Maya: Hidden Worlds Revealed,” visitors can recreate their Maya architecture, while learning how ancient engineers designed the structures. Courtesy Photo