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Maya Mystery

Inside the largest touring exhibit ever built by the Science Museum of Minnesota

Maya Mystery
Incense Urn. Located in Gallery 6: Making a Living.

(page 1 of 2)

Though he has worked at the Science Museum of Minnesota for decades, Paul Martin doesn’t have a desk. He doesn’t need one. As the vice president of science learning (and a self-styled nomad), he works from his laptop, regularly makes international calls from his cell phone, and meets with colleagues in a conference room. Which is where he told us about Maya: Hidden Worlds Revealed, a massive new exhibition opening June 21 at the museum in St. Paul then touring to Denver, Boston, San Diego, and beyond. It’s the largest touring exhibition to emerge from the science museum, which has made a burgeoning business of building them. The work employs about 120 people and is a rare enterprise. Only the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the Exploratorium in San Francisco, and a few other museums also do this work. A couple of years ago, the science museum was looking for its next big exhibit and landed in the Central American rainforest: among test groups, the ancient Maya civilization (and its demise) had floated to the top of the hot-topic list. Soon, Martin’s staff was acquiring some 260 artifacts—half of them relatively fresh out of the ground—and configuring 10 galleries on every aspect of ancient Maya life. Thematically, they track the story of the maize god, whose death and resurrection marked the changing seasons. They also explode misconceptions, like the “fallacy,” Martin says, “that the civilization fell apart on a weekend or something,” as his team explained on a behind-the-scenes tour. Here, a preview of the mysteries revealed.

Gallery 1: Intro Theater

Video, animation, and photography set the tone for exploring a civilization steeped in spirituality.

Gallery 2: Unlocking the Maya Past

Peek inside the field camps of Mayanists, those who study the Maya world.  Try solving some Maya math (yeah, your mad trig skills won’t help).  Then check out two steles (stone pillars): the king depicted on one was captured and decapitated by the king on the other.

Gallery 3: Histories in Stone

Light projections on the steles help you see the Maya glyphs that tell of dynasties and divine claims to rule.  It features a statue from Copán’s Temple 22, among the most elaborate yet discovered, displayed here for the first time.

Gallery 4: Watching the Skies

About that whole end-of-the-world thing: “It wasn’t a prophecy,” Martin says.  “They just didn’t get around to creating the next calendar cycle.”  Procrastinators.  Here, an interactive version of the Mayas’ famously auspicious calendar.

Gallery 5: Master Builders

Maya ruins are colorless corpses compared to these places in their prime.  The stones were plastered and brightly painted, and the region was as deforested as a suburban lawn.  Here, colors are projected onto a frieze while an arch shows how the Maya built without wheels or the DIY Network. Walk through to see a Maya ball court (without the human sacrifice).

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