A Living Venue for Cultural Crossroads

Article excerpt

Standing at the doorway to the Denver Art Museum's Center of Latin American Art and Archeology, one is surrounded by crisp rows of contemporary glass cases filled with pre-Columbian sculpture, pottery, stone and tools. The thousands of objects represent 83 pre-Columbian cultures of Central and Latin America; each is identified with a short description, in both English and Spanish, that links it to its culture. "Our collection of indigenous art of the Americas is internationally significant, yet until now it has been one of the great unknown collections of the world," says Gordon McEwan, curator of the museum's pre-Columbian and Spanish Colonial collections, all aspects of which are presented bilingually.

February, 1993, marked the one hundredth anniversary of the Denver Art Museum with the completion of a $9 million remodelling and reinstallation project of two entire floors. The newly opened galleries house the first comprehensive display of the arts of South and Central America from before and after the European encounter. "Historically, we have collected in such fields as Native American and Spanish Colonial art--areas that are only now beginning to receive the scholarly and public attention they merit," says Frederick R. Mayer, chairman of the museum. "Our holdings in these fields are now the most important in the country." The museum has one of the largest collections in Central American material.

For the first time, the museum is able to exhibit all 5,000 of its pre-Columbian and Colonial pieces. Approximately 200 of the most delicate are highlighted in the Selected Works gallery. Pottery and priceless gold jewelry are displayed in easily viewed cases while many stone statues, urns, metates, and spheres are out in the open, giving visitors an arresting first-hand encounter. The remaining 4800 items are displayed in the Study gallery, which is open to both scholars and novices. "If a scholar is researching, for instance, Costa Rican jade, this is the place to come," says McEwan. "But we're encouraging research at every level, including casual inquiry by the general public. We're reaching out to all Americans. The international response has already been overwhelming. On our opening weekend last February, I met five Chileans, two Argentineans, and twenty-five Peruvians." When visitors see something that catches their interest in the Selected Works gallery, they can go right into the Study gallery and find a dozen other examples from as many different cultures. It is literally an encyclopedic display.

Although not the first to utilize what is known as "open storage," the Denver Art Museum is the first to combine open storage with a study gallery. They are hoping to redefine the ways in which individuals interact with art in a museum through innovative initiatives such as setting live, in-gallery interpretive programming, extended object labelling, audio-visual programs installed around gallery perimeters, and various "library" areas which encourage the reading of extensive resource materials, including bilingual children's books. "The challenge," says curator McEwan, "was to display 5,000 objects while at the same time allowing for an aesthetic, meaningful experience."

Frederick Lange, a professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado in Boulder, heads the Center of Latin American Art and Archeology, the research arm of the department newly headquartered at the museum. Inga Calvin, an expert on Mayan glyphs, is program officer. Each year, the center sponsors an international symposium, with academics from many countries convening for both public and private sessions over a three to four-day period. This years symposium, scheduled for September, focuses on Spanish Colonial Art. The 1994 session will examine stylistic parallels between Meso-American Mayan and Peruvian Moche cultures. A published volume summarizes each symposium.

Among the 83 cultures represented is Tiahuanaco, a ceremonial culture on the shores of Lake Titicaca in Bolivia. …