Visitors to “MAYA 2012: Lords of Time” are greeted by a wall of video screens erupting in apocalyptic images. Is the Penn Museum declaring that this will be the last major exhibition any of us will see before the end of the world?
“I hope not,” says co-curator Simon Martin with a laugh.
Taking the fascination with the Mayan calendar as a leaping-off point, “MAYA 2012” debunks those cataclysmic theories while showcasing the culture’s extraordinary number and calendar system. “Truth tends to be stranger than fiction,” Martin says of the show. “Most people don’t understand what an astonishing amount of real achievement the ancient Maya made.”
The show features more than 100 objects, many recently excavated by Penn Museum archaeologists in Copan, Honduras, tracing the Maya culture up to the present day. Striking artworks — and replicas of objects unable to travel from Honduras, created with 3-D scanning technology — stand alongside interactive stations that allow visitors to interview experts, participate in a virtual excavation or dial up their birthdate on the Mayan calendar.
So where did this end-times myth come from? “It’s a little difficult to say,” Martin admits. “It’s a combination of different ideas from different places. Some of it comes from Maya myths, but they’ve been confused with a less-than-complete understanding of the calendar, mixed together in ways that two plus two equals five.”