Maya Mystery

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

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).


Gallery 6: Making a Living

It was good to be the king—or a priest—in ancient Caracol.  A model neighborhood suggests how everyone else lived.

Gallery 7: Death and Rebirth

The most object-filled gallery offers a look at caves and bodies of water, believed by the ancient Maya to be portals to the underworld.  Thus, they threw in everything from pots and other ritual objects to human sacrifices.  The more sacrifices, the more desperate the Maya were for rain—which seemed to be the case toward the end.

Gallery 8: Dead Tell Tales

We will know you by your bling.  Here, you can scope a Mayan king’s bling and try your hand at tomb excavation.

Gallery 9: A Story in Pictures

See yourself with dental inlays, tooth fillings, cranium modifications, and other ancient Maya beauty treatments via video projection.  Also, an entire room is reconstructed here of murals from Mexico depicting a succession to the throne—murals that were never finished, suggesting an end to the royal courts.

Gallery 10: Maya Roots Run Deep

Maya culture didn’t die, the kingdoms did.  Here, Maya people talk about their enduring identity while images of the maize god from 2,000 years ago, 1,300 years ago, and today connect the dots of an evolving culture.

Building Worlds

Five amazing exhibitions created by the Science Museum (and where they are now)

  • Race: Are We So Different?
    The first national exhibition to discuss race from biological, cultural, and historical viewpoints. Will be in Birmingham, Alabama, this summer.
  • Lost Egypt: Ancient Secrets, Modern Science
    New revelations about the world’s most mysterious ancient culture. Will be in St. Louis, Missouri, this summer.
  • Wild Music: Sounds & Songs of Life
    The biological origins of music—how it’s created and why we’re inspired by it. Will be in Macon, Georgia, this summer.
  • Robots & Us
    The history of robots in science and popular culture, and how they work. Will be in Richmond, Virginia, this summer.
  • Playing With Time
    Exploring the unseen world of natural change; the events that happen too fast or too slow for us to perceive. Will be in Norwich, Vermont, this summer.