Denvers Museo De Las Americas brings back Mayan pyramid

The Museo de las America’s Mayan pyramid is one of Denver’s quirkier treasures. Part artifact, part oddity, it is easy to love but hard to categorize.

In some ways, the model is a throwback to the sort of object that used to dominate the displays at American museums, before they polished themselves into more professional acts.

Think of it as you might the wild animal dioramas at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, or the scaled-down replica of downtown Denver at the Colorado History Center. All are nostalgic holdovers from an era when curiosity, rather than top-level curating, guided the lineup at cultural institutions — more people’s choice than precious commodity

And they never go away, at least not for long, as the return of the pyramid proves. It was out of view for about a decade, but it’s back and part of the recently unveiled Gallery of the Ancient Americas that also puts on display items from the museum’s impressive collection of high-quality holdings — dating back thousands of years — from Latin America.

The pyramid is the star of the new show, if only because it is big enough to fill half of the room on its own. It’s about 6-feet square, and it weighs 500 pounds, according to executive director Claudia Moran-Pichardo. Visitors can walk around it for a 360-degree viewing experience.

What they see is a smaller, yet precise, re-creation of the Pyramid of the Magician, located in Uxmal, Mexico, on the Yucatan Peninsula. The five-tiered structure is detailed with tiny stairs and ornate decoration around entranceways and along its cornice, many bearing images of Chac, the Mayan rain god. Viewers can see how its outer layer has weathered away to reveal its block construction underneath.

At the same time, they can read how the pyramid served a vast civilization that, at its peak from 600 to 1000 A.D., had a population of 25,000, placing it among the largest metropolises on the early continent.

If you go

The Museo de las Americas is at 861 Santa Fe Drive. It’s open Tuesdays-Fridays noon to 6 p.m., Saturdays noon to 5 p.m. General admission $8; students, seniors and military $5. Info at 303-571-4401 or museo.org.

The original pyramid topped 130 feet, and its facade was crafted using thousands of pieces of precisely cut limestone. There are two staircases with two temples at the top, and it was rebuilt several times over the ages.

The model has its own story, not as long perhaps but still interesting, and not all of the details are known, according to Moran-Pichardo. It was built in California in the 1930s by workers hired as part of the Works Progress Administration and somehow ended up at the Denver Art Museum.

“I was told it was at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science once,” said Moran-Pichardo. “Information was lost in the transition.”

The object was an odd fit for DAM’s art collection, and it was donated to the Museo de las Americas. Denver artist Emanuel Martinez was hired to refurbish it in 1994; he was brought back for touch-ups for the current resurrection.

The museum has put the pyramid before the public in the past, though it has been something of an awkward object there, too, as the institution has gone through personality shifts over the years, alternating between its role as a presenter of items from its 3,500-object collection and its role as the premier local showplace for contemporary art by living artists from across the Americas.

About a decade ago, that pendulum swung toward contemporary art (and, frankly, toward a more credible lineup of offerings from the museum), and a wall was built around the pyramid.

“Many people forgot about the piece,” said Moran-Pichardo. “It was always here, but it was hidden.”

Lately, the museum has decided to embrace the pyramid. What it may lack in curatorial integrity it makes up for with its own history, telling tales about the ancient world but also this country and the Museo de las Americas itself.

The museum used a Community ACTS Fund grant from the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District to renovate a space to show the pyramid, along with several vitrines filled with objects from the collection for the temporary, though long-term, exhibition “Tiempo y Lugar” (“Time and Place”).

Those objects are both rare and captivating, and the museum has organized them into four sections:

  • The first highlights pieces from what is now Peru and Ecuador dating back to 1400 B.C. and includes such items as a Lambayeque frog whistle and a Chimu whistling jar.
  • A second case holds pieces from the eastern side of Mexico, with an Olmec replica of a baby’s head, a standing figure from Jaina Island, a Mayan burial ground and other pieces.
  • From there, the geography moves west, with objects from Colima, including a frog flute, a standing warrior and a dancer, complete with a costume and mask.
  • The final display includes objects recovered from the legendary Teotihuacan site, including one figure with a traditional headdress and another balancing an incense burner on its head.

Simple descriptions of the objects are provided through wall text and deeper backgrounds about civilizations and eras can be accessed via telephone using QR codes placed throughout the gallery.

The display is just big enough to be interesting but not so large as to overwhelm visitors with information. It’s a sampler of the Museo de las Americas’ larger holdings.

But it is transformational for the institution, and it changes the way museum-goers will experience it. The museum is still reserving ample space for contemporary art, though this moves the balance toward a more archeological lineup for folks who come through the doors. It’s a careful mix, and possibly confusing, but it works.

It also reflects the museum’s split personality, which has always made it unique among the area’s cultural offerings. The Museo de las Americas has altered its focus over time, but always held true to the idea that a museum can do many things at once. It can focus on the past and, at the same time, provide a first draft of the historical present. It is a quirky place by design.

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