THE PENN MUSEUM of Archaeology and Anthropology has a lot of faith in its new exhibit, "Maya 2012: Lords of Time," which focuses on the Maya apocalypse that is supposed to put an end to our world on Dec. 23, 2012.
After all, the exhibit runs through Jan. 13, 2013.
If the museum wants you to come away with one lesson from "Maya 2012," it's this: That whole idea that there's Maya prophecy foretelling the end of the world is totally wrong.
The exact origin of the Maya 2012 myth is hard to pinpoint, but its longevity is due in no small part to a crackpot cocktail of idiots on the Internet, New Age-y dudes in flowy pants and Hollywood fare (see: Roland Emmerich's disaster flick "2012" or Mel Gibson's epically bad "Apocalypto").
"There's always people who like the idea of being prophets. They can glom onto a few different ideas, combine things and see what things people can see," said Simon Martin, an epigrapher who studies glyph-writing and co-curator of the exhibit. "There's this inner dread within us, that everything will end and there will be some retribution from nature or the gods or whatever. We're all waiting for something bad to happen, especially if it can be linked up with mysteries and the past and things people don't understand. We don't talk about the Tudor English prophecy of doom. We know these societies too well. There's a heightened sense of much we don't know."
The 2012 apocalypse myth epitomizes the general lack of knowledge when it comes to the Maya culture. How else could we believe something about an entire civilization that's completely untrue?
Scattered from southern Mexico through Central America, Maya civilization peaked in what is known as the Classic period (250-900 A.D.), and the exhibit — which contains more than 150 artifacts and replicas — uses many objects from the archaeological site of Copan, in western Honduras, as a sort of case study, offering museumgoers a look at the rise and fall of the city and, by extension, Maya culture.
Martin said that there's been a revolution in Maya studies in the last 30 years, including the ability to read the writing system. "There's still a lot of things we don't understand," Martin said. "Everything improves all the time."
Loa Traxler, curator of the exhibit, takes the prevalence of misinformation about the culture personally. "We scholars in Maya studies, we haven't done a good enough job of opening up this area of world heritage," Traxler said. "We've fallen short of our job and … we've got to be much more attentive about providing better information."
Providing better information is one of the main goals of "Maya 2012." Throughout the exhibit, signs line the walls debunking the popular myths associated with the Maya. For instance, a calendar stone that supposedly explains this 2012 prophecy? That's not even from the Maya. It's Aztec. Are contemporary Maya freaking out about 2012? Nope. "The Maya think we're somewhat crazy," said Kate Quinn, director of exhibitions. Although they do appreciate the increase in tourism to Maya archaeological sites thanks to the ubiquity of the mythic prophecy.
Still another common misconception is that the Maya disappeared. "There's millions of Maya people and they have a lot of culture," Traxler said, referring to the 5 million to 7 million people around the world who identify as Maya. Visitors will learn this from video portals scattered throughout the exhibit that feature Maya descendants talking about their culture, its legacy and its future, an approach that makes the ancient culture feel immediate and present. (Traxler and Martin also are given their own video portal to discuss how they got into Maya studies. Martin got interested by watching TV shows about the Maya in his native Britain.)
The technological aspects of the exhibit also serve to make complicated concepts, like the Maya calendar itself, easier to understand. Interactive screens, for example, let people print their names (this reporter chose Princess Jaguar) in Maya glyphs or a stela (or stone monument) with their birth dates. Other screens show how the Maya calendar syncs with our own Gregorian calendar.
"We really want to give a sense that [Maya culture] is something people can really explore. … Some people really like exploring all of the details and the beautiful qualities of the artwork," Traxler said, referring to the artifacts on display. "For younger kids, who are fish swimming in a digital age, they don't have to watch someone else do it." n
Contact Molly Eichel at 215-854-5909 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter @mollyeichel. Read her blog posts atphilly.com/entertainment.