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The new Mexico and Central America gallery features 250 artifacts. Photo: Courtesy of the Penn Museum
The new Mexico and Central America gallery features 250 artifacts. Photo: Courtesy of the Penn Museum

Penn Museum unveils new Mexico and Central America Gallery

The gallery explores the rich, vibrant living history of indigenous culture and heritage in Mesoamerica.

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The Penn Museum’s newly renovated Mexico and Central America Gallery, which opened to the public on Nov. 16, covers a lot of ground—both literally and figuratively. 

The gallery spans 2,000 square feet and contains artifacts, art, and other objects from distinct civilizations that have flourished in Mesoamerica across 3,000 years of history.

Lead curator Simon Martin, Ph.D., associate curator and Keeper of Collections in the American Section at the Penn Museum, said that the refurbished Mexico and Central America Gallery has allowed the museum to display some of the rich material that had been previously stored away in the museum’s vaults, and was left out of the original Mexico and Central America Gallery, first established in 1949. 

Many of the 250 artifacts featured in the gallery—which include sculptures, Maya stone monuments (including one which was used by historians to decipher ancient Mayan writing), the only complete sculpture of the Great Goddess of Teotihuacan outside of Mexico City, and textiles—are on display for the first time.

The original version, Martin said, “promised something that we weren’t able to deliver before.” The old gallery featured much material from the ancient Mayan civilization, but lacked a more complex presentation of Aztec, Zapotec, and other Mesoamerican civilizations.

“We’re very conscious of not being an art museum,” said Martin, who emphasized the anthropological dimension of the museum’s purpose. “Even though many of these objects could be at the Met [Metropolitan Museum of Art], we have a different project, we have a different goal,” he added, noting that the exhibits are designed to be interactive and educate museum-goers of all ages about both the past and present of indigenous cultures and traditions in Mexico and Central America. 

The interactive exhibits include a video about Mayan women weavers in Guatemala who have fought for, and won, copyright protection for their textile designs, as well as a soon-to-be installed listening bench for visitors to hear many of the living languages spoken in Mexico and Central America, including Nahuatl, Zapotec, K’iche’, and more.

“We wanted people to leave just really being certain that they are aware that this is not something of the past, many of these traditions are ongoing, and raising some of the important issues as well, social and political issues,” said Associate Curator Lucy Fowler Williams, Ph.D., Sabloff Keeper of Collections, American Section, Penn Museum. 

To bring the living history and culture to life, the reimagined and refurbished gallery also includes a Global Guides program, which employs individuals from the cultures and countries represented in the gallery to lead tours that can be arranged in advance or are available on select days. 

Celeste Díaz, a recent UPenn graduate and a Global Guide, said that the position allows her to share more about her own family’s history and traditions from Guatemala. 

“People don’t know a lot about Central America, there’s a lot of erasure that happens in the U.S., so for me it was an interesting opportunity to...learn about it but also teach other people about it,” said Díaz. 

“I see this as a way to not only educate myself but educate other people on a history of the Americas that they’re simply not educated on or they’re not really exposed to whatsoever,” agreed Abraham Sandoval Iñiguez, a current sophomore at UPenn and Global Guide. 

Global Guide Carlos José Pérez Sámano, president of the Philadelphia chapter of the Mexican Global Network, said that having his and others’ personal stories incorporated into the gallery presentation is a significant component. 

“I feel like stories empower people, because when you give the opportunity to listen to someone, then you learn. And when you learn you expand your perception so that’s important. What the museum is doing is opening the doors to the public, and opening the conversation so we can talk about things without feeling afraid,” he said. 

Along with the revamped Africa and Sphinx galleries, the renovated Mexico and Central America gallery officially opened to the public on Nov. 16. Museum hours can be found at the Penn Museum website

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