As much as I’d love to say that I spend all my days roaming forests and reading letters, I have a second life: and in that other existence, I work at an art museum and study Latin American art from the so-called “Pre-Columbian” period. (In other words, I spend a lot of time thinking about the art of the Aztec, Maya, Inca, and so forth.) Usually, though, large museums aren’t that great about their manner of displaying “Pre-Columbian” art: it’s typically grouped in with completely unrelated art from around the world and housed in dimly-lit rooms that create a more exoticized atmosphere.
So that’s why my visit to the Dumbarton Oaks museum was the highlight of my DC trip.
Dumbarton Oaks hosts the collection of Robert Woods Bliss, a guy who held some pretty radical ideas about Pre-Columbian art for his time. In an era when these fascinating and artistically impressive objects were often considered “artifacts” that belonged in natural history museums or ethnological displays, Bliss thought they should be treated with the same respect as, say, classical Greek and Roman objects. You go, Robert Woods Bliss!
You can get a sense of this curatorial philosophy as soon as you step inside the Pre-Columbian galleries. Set on platforms in beautiful circular rooms with floor-to-ceiling windows, each object is treated as an individual work of art–rather than one among many dusty artifacts across from the dinosaur bones in a natural history museum. I’ve never seen a display of Pre-C art that puts the objects in such a place of honor.
This mural would have decorated a wall in the great Mexican city of Teotihuacan around 400 CE: and even at 1600 years old, its colors remain rich and vibrant!
This golden hand is an example of the amazing Lambayeque metalworking tradition–note the beautiful border of waves, a testament to the role of the sea in the lives of these artists from the Peruvian north coast!
When people think of the pre-colonial civilizations and cultures of Latin America, they often assume that they are “ancient”: when, in fact, the Aztec and Inca empires were at their height at around the same time as the European Renaissance. This Olmec mask, however, truly is ancient, and dates back nearly three thousand years. Its delicately carved, snarling face and the way in which the glass walls unintentionally provide it with a pair of peering green eyes stayed with me long after I had exited the grand gates of the Bliss estate.