Skip to comments.Road to Machu Picchu runs through L.A.(Inca exhibit in LA Natural History Museum)
Posted on 06/30/2003 8:04:23 PM PDT by FairOpinion
Machu Picchu Comes to L.A. Largest U.S. Exhibition of Inca Treasures Makes Only West Coast Stop at Natural History Museum (http://www.nhm.org/) . June 22 to September 7, 2003. This is the first stop on the exhibitions national tour, after its debut at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. Following the Los Angeles presentation, the exhibit will travel to Pittsburgh, Denver, Houston and Chicago.
The enduring allure of Machu Picchu, the 15th-century Incan ruins nestled into Peru's Andes Mountains, is its mystery.
Why and how did the Incas build such an impressive estate -- a five-acre city, really, with 150 structures carved from granite -- in such a remote and rugged locale? And why did they abandon it in the early 1500s, letting it become so lost in overgrowth and hidden to the world that it wasn't rediscovered until 1911? With time, its legacy has become so spooky and sacred as to make its origins seem otherworldly.
The new "Machu Picchu: Unveiling the Mystery of the Incas' exhibit (at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County through Sept. 7) understands the power of that mystery. The short film you watch before entering the galleries uses such terms as "mists of time' and "abandoned in mystic clouds' in describing the site.
And when the film is over, a door behind the screen magically opens -- like a secret passage -- to lead you into a re-created "lost horizon.' Inside, there's even a replica of a wide, stone Incan roadway to follow on your journey.
Yet, at the same time, the exhibit resolves many questions about Machu Picchu's history without making the place seem mundane. For instance, Machu Picchu was not -- as widely believed -- exclusively meant as an inaccessible sacred site. Rather, the Incan ruling hierarchy used it as a country retreat, with a large resident staff that included farmers, servants and craftsmen. It was about four days by foot from Cuzco, their capital.
And it was not all that exotically remote -- for them, anyway. Built in a lush, verdant valley at about 8,000 feet above sea level, with views of surrounding mountains, it actually had better weather than Cuzco.
"Cuzco was cold with frost every day,' said Karen Wise, the museum's associate curator of anthropology. "You could go down to this beautiful lush area. It was like going from Washington to Camp David.'
Although the Spanish never sacked Machu Picchu, their conquest of the Incas in the 16th century hastened its abandonment. "Machu Picchu was subsidized,' said Richard Burger, the Yale University anthropologist who co-curated this show. (First staged at Yale, it travels to Pittsburgh, Denver, Houston and Chicago after L.A.)
"The minute the empire started being destroyed and taxation stopped, there were no subsidies,' he said. Those staying there left for Cuzco, taking many of their valuables with them. Their country retreat was a luxury no longer affordable.
To make sure the truth about Machu Picchu is as interesting to museum-goers as the myths, curators have designed some innovative interactive and audio-visual features, as well as painstakingly detailed dioramas and replicas of actual structures.
As a result, this is an exhibit that is entertaining and sometimes exciting. And to make visitors feel like they're actually in Peru rather than L.A., the gallery walls are lined with large, glossy, full-color panoramic photos of Machu Picchu.
"One of the challenges we had was that much of the glory had to do with the architecture and the environment, and in a museum you lose that,' Burger said. "So we sent photographers down to Machu Picchu to take panoramic photographs so you could see what it looks like.'
The exhibit also allows for serious contemplation of art for art's sake. With some 400 artifacts, including a rare royal "tocapu' tunic covered with geometric motifs and a large, cone-shaped ritual vessel decorated with clay spiny-oyster shells, this is the largest Incan exhibition ever displayed in the United States.
There isn't that much gold -- Spaniards plundered it after conquering the Inca Empire in the 1500s. But there is meticulously crafted metal jewelry such as shawl pins, stone carvings and effigies, and utensils and containers for the chewing of coca leaves.
Roughly 85 percent of those objects were excavated from Machu Picchu itself; most are from Yale University's Peabody Museum of Natural History, although some are from Peru and international collections.
The show also contains memorabilia from Yale archaeologist Hiram Bingham's famous 1912 excavation of Machu Picchu -- including his original cameras. Bingham discovered the site in 1911. For his follow-up 1912 expedition, National Geographic devoted an issue to Machu Picchu. George Eastman himself lent the Kodak cameras, and Abercrombie and Fitch provided clothing.
"That's why I think he's always looking so debonair in photographs,' Wise said of Bingham. "At the time, a Yale-sponsored scientific expedition to Peru was an exciting thing to participate in.'
Besides the artifacts and historical objects, two installations attract special attention. One is a large topographical map with light-up features that allows visitors to "see' the exact locations amid today's excavated ruins of specific buildings as they once were used.
The other consists of three computer stations -- plus one large screen -- that provide navigable, interactive virtual tours of Machu Picchu. Kids love this feature and are reluctant to leave.
This virtual tour was designed by George R. Miller, an anthropologist at California State University at Hayward, and his students. It was a seven-year project. The computers allow users to experience some 400 different panoramic views of Machu Picchu.
"To do this piece, we took over 6,000 digital photographs,' Miller said. "Each panorama is 18 photographs. The software stitches them together to be a seamless thing.'
As a visiting professor at Yale in 1994, where he first learned of Burger's plans, Miller analyzed animal bones deposited in Machu Picchu tombs. Because of that interest, he has embedded native animals -- as well as objects -- into the computer images.
A click on the animal icons brings up additional information, sometimes presented in unusual ways. For instance, clicking on a viscacha -- a member of the chinchilla family -- begins a cartoon with talking animal characters.
"That provides for a sense of uncovering mysteries and kids enjoy that,' Miller said. "And it taps into the more youthful part of all of us.'
I grew up with many of the same photos from the National Geographic on the walls of my grandparent's house. We have his camera from the expidition in our family room. He also took the camera to France during WWI (Royal Army Medical Corps) and then to China in the 20's (International Red Cross).
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