The new Museo Maya de América will safeguard the millennia-old legacy of the Maya civilization in the world’s largest facility dedicated to celebrating the Maya culture.
The Popol Vuh, an ancient Maya text, narrates the story of the creation of the earth. After the creators had filled the earth with animals, they still felt a void. “Speak, then, our names, praise us, your mother, your father,” they asked the animals. But the animals could only hiss and cackle and scream.
“Let us try to make obedient, respectful beings who will nourish and sustain us,” the gods said. And so they fashioned beings from mud. But the mud was soft and did not keep its form. The creators were displeased and destroyed their creation. Trying again, they made men of wood. These beings looked and talked like men, but they had no souls or minds. They could not honor or care for their creators. Still unhappy, the creators destroyed these beings in a great flood.
A third time, the creators wanted to create humans. “The time of dawn has come, let the work be finished, and let those who are to nourish and sustain us appear,” the gods proclaimed. The animals brought forth white ears of corn and yellow ears of corn, and the creators put the corn into the flesh of man, and the earth was filled with abundant food and drink and peopled with a wise and intelligent race of humans.
TO NOURISH AND SUSTAIN
Guatemala today is committed to maintaining a firm connection with its rich and storied past, particularly the complex, advanced civilization that was the Maya—a civilization that lives rooted among the Guatemalan people, who carry on its languages and traditions. The nation and its neighbors are home to hundreds of archeological sites that have yielded thousands of Maya treasures. In an ambitious new project, Guatemala will bring these treasures together under one roof as a permanent monument to the great Maya empire—as the museum’s mission states, to “protect, preserve, display, and disseminate the Mayan cultural heritage.”
The new Museo Maya de América (MUMA) in Guatemala City is to be the foremost museum of Maya archeology in the world, a center of education, and the leading institution in the conservation of Guatemala’s cultural heritage. It will house one of the world’s most significant collections of Maya objects, artifacts, artworks, and textiles in a stunning 600,000-square-foot building designed by local and international architects.
Sited at the northern edge of La Aurora Park, the museum will be immediately visible when entering Guatemala City’s international airport. It will become the capstone to a series of institutions, including the Children’s Museum and the Guatemalan Museum of Modern Art. This cultural nexus will provide a new destination for tourists and residents alike.
THE MAGNIFICENT MAYA
Centered in the tropical lowlands of what is now Guatemala, the Maya empire peaked in power and influence around the sixth century A.D. The only ancient culture in America to develop writing, the Maya excelled at the arts and sciences and left behind astonishing cities, as well as signs of advanced farming techniques, long-lasting utilitarian tools, and objets d’art of enduring beauty.
Mysteriously, between the late eighth and late ninth centuries, Maya cities were abandoned and the society collapsed. Yet the innovation and creativity of this ancient realm are very much present in concepts and structures we recognize today: their remarkable calendar, a system of mathematics that independently invented the zero, astronomical studies, stunning palaces and pyramids, cents and aqueducts for safeguarding precious water, and beautiful decorative arts.
Today, the nation’s people maintain many of the Maya’s traditions and stories, and a vast array of Mayan languages ensures that these traditions will live on. Part of MUMA’s legacy will be to preserve these living traditions even as it honors the past. Other goals are to build a tradition of lifelong learning and to partner with local educational institutions. The museum’s philosophy is that only through knowledge can a people keep their culture alive; MUMA is dedicated to conserving and spreading that knowledge to every Guatemalan.
A Maya temple, standing in the jungle, covered with vines—that indelible image speaks of a great civilization. The new museum, with an estimated cost of US $75 million, is inspired by the architecture of these temples while incorporating the features of a state-of-the-art museum facility.
“At first glance, the building appears to be a contemporary expression of Maya architectural elements,” says Swiss-based lead architect Harry Gugger. “It forms a monolithic box perched atop blocks of stone, as if floating above the ground. On closer inspection, a pattern of staggered stone screens is punctuated by over-scaled loggias that draw light into the building and offer glimpses inside.”
To facilitate maximum interaction with the site, the ground floor is almost entirely open, while the galleries reside within the floating box, connected to the lower levels by stairs that climb around a lofty central courtyard. “The central court evokes the cenote, a type of natural sinkhole characteristic of the Yucatan and held sacred by the Maya,” explains architect Roberto de Oliveira Castro, of Boston firm over,under. “Open to the sky and lushly planted, the eight-story cenote functions as the heart of the museum, its displays, and its activities.”