Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Maya on Exhibit

Though the Museum of Science has been closed off-and-on due to the blizzard conditions (the fourth in four weeks... not bitter... not at all), it has a climatologically-distinct exhibit currently on view. If, amid these swirls of snow and whiplashes of cold air, you have found yourself dreaming of the Yucatan, then you are in luck.

I guess what I'm saying is that if you are interested in utterly immersing yourself in a time and place as far away from the Northeast in 2015, then you'd be hard-pressed to find a better opportunity than the Maya's classical period. And if it can make you forget about this snowy Boston February, even for a little while, then why not?

There are better reasons, though, than forgetting the weather. Remembering and understanding that the Americas were once dominated by non-Europeans is important, and equally so, that civilizations native to this continent were complex, advanced, and sophisticated beyond what our grade school (even high school) textbooks intimated is, too. This is an enlightening, engaging experience that challenges commonly held assumptions and patterns of belief regarding the rich heritage of this nation and the others with whom we share the continent.

For example, it is largely understood that Mayans were one of the few civilizations to have developed the concept of the zero. But, did you ever ask - did they use the zero the same way we do with our Arabic numerals? The answer will surprise you. Using a zero in a number with Mayan numerals has an exponential effect that is not proportionate to the mathematical system we use of tens, hundreds, thousands, etc. I am not enough of a mathematician to say this with authority, but I would have to conclude, then, that this challenges the idea of math as some sort of universal language - at the very least to the point that we may say it has "regional dialects." Brain-rattling, right?

There is, however, a lot of math that is lost on me. History and mythology, on the other hand, are languages I understand a bit more readily. That said, the special exhibit itself seems more geared towards a younger crowd, so if you have kids, they will get quite a bit out of it. There are stations where you can print a Mayan name or bookmark in hieroglyphs, create architecture, decipher a wall painting, etc. Though informative and interactive, it seemed a bit shorter than previous exhibits that used the same space. 

The real star of the show was the planetarium presentation. (The omni show, like others that have been featured, will likely arrive on Netflix at some point, and was not remastered for a curved IMAX screen - human beings and straight lines were quite susceptible to distortion.) Tales of the Maya Skies, however, was a fantastic, original presentation that was well worth the price of admission. Something that it did particularly well was its representation of mythology overlaid onto Mayan architecture. For example, in one segment it explained how Mayan step pyramids were constructed so that the shadow of the pyramid's zigzagged corner would be cast on the large stone "railing" beside its central staircase. As the sun went down, this zigzag would shift, waffle, and wave. Because the base of the staircase's railing was a giant carved serpent's head, this created the appearance of the serpent slithering down the pyramid, literally descending from the heavens. (You can see the reality of this process on YouTube here; the planetarium shows more of a "mind's-eye" experience of it.) It was a fascinating and welcome take on how architecture can be modeled on mythology and used to create a magical, meaningful experience of it.

As far as special exhibits go, I would highly recommend this one. One of the joys of living in Boston is the way in which our museums go to great lengths to inform and educate us. Particularly in history and culture, the Museum of Fine Arts and the Museum of Science have created fantastic opportunities like these. It is very nice to see that tradition continue. Kudos to the Museum of Science for creating not just a fully immersive Mayan environment to explore, but also the excellent Tales of the Maya Skies. Stop in while you still can!

Til next time!

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