Boston may be thousands of miles from Latin America’s ancient Maya sites, but a little piece of that world has resided in our fair city for more than one hundred years. A fine collection of Mesoamerican artifacts have lived at Harvard’s Peabody Museum since the late nineteenth century, thanks in no small part to the efforts of Charles Bowditch. In 1891, Bowditch, a Boston financier, archaeologist, and cryptologist, planned and bankrolled a series of professional excavations of Copan—an endeavor that the Honduran government could neither coordinate nor afford. As payment, the University kept half of the expeditions’ finds.
Things have changed since the days of Charles Bowditch; national and international laws now regulate the antiquities market. Boston, and its universities, however, continue to be home to a number of notable Maya explorers and archaeologists, including Norman Hammond, Lauren Sullivan, and William Saturno. And the Maya remain a solid fixture at the Peabody Museum.
Within the Peabody’s “Encounters with the Americas” exhibit, Maya pottery rests in glass cases. Fifty- to one-hundred-word labels explain the significance of altars and glyphs. But at the Peabody, just like at so many other conventional museums, visitors wander and wonder but do not directly interact with exhibits or their content. Fortunately, just as archaeological practices and protocols have and continue to evolve, so too do the ways in which museums display the fruits of excavation.
From now until early May, Boston Museums of Science’s “Maya” Hidden Worlds Revealed” exhibit encourages its audiences to engage directly with its subject. In addition to traditional displays, the exhibit teems with technology, hands-on activities, and audio-visual displays. “Hidden Worlds Revealed” encourages visitors to decipher hieroglyphs and construct pyramids with blocks, to reassemble broken pottery and choose their own Maya name. The exhibition explores the world of the Maya as well as the work of the men and women who, over the last three centuries, have advanced our understanding of it. But as Professor Saturno reminded the museum guests on opening night, although many discoveries have already been made, more work lies ahead for Boston’s next generation of Maya scholars.