Design for Eternity:
Architectural Models from the Ancient Americas
On ViewMetropolitan Museum of Art
October 26, 2015 – September 18, 2016
In ancient civilizations, miniature structures of everyday life or the imagined afterlife were often placed alongside the deceased in tombs and burial sites. We are familiar with the funeral boats of ancient Egypt and the terracotta soldiers of ancient China; far less well known are the architectural models found in ancient Mesoamerican and Andean tombs. Bringing together fine examples from the Metropolitan’s own substantive collection and items on loan from other museums, this exhibition opens an important window onto these remote cultures. Not only do these funereal artifacts account for much of what is known about the long-disappeared residential architecture they imitate, they also substantially advance our understanding of the worldviews of their creators.
Ancient Mayan hieroglyphs describe these architectural models as “god houses” or “sleeping places for the gods.” As seen in the exhibition, some of the models are paired with a vessel, ostensibly to house divine spirits; in their cultures, the gods lived alongside and interacted with mankind, alive and dead. At least some models likely played a role in funereal rituals, as suggested by one example which doubles as a musical instrument, whistled when blown into (a video of the model being “played” is provided).
Two outstanding artifacts, including the Mexican House with Occupants (100 BCE – 200 CE), are especially detailed, multi-level structures that depict a feast, likely the one that honors the late individual for whom the model is made. As the model illustrates, deceased family members were often buried below the house they occupied; this model also includes several figures in the process of traversing different levels, from basement tomb to ground floor to upper floors. This explicitly free movement, as well as the remarkable proximity of the dwelling to the tomb upon which it stands, represent and reify the comingling of the remembered dead, the deities invoked at their burial, and their mortal survivors, in memory, and also in physical space. Placed in the tomb, the architectural models concretized the connection of the living and the dead. One can speculate that they crystallize the transition of life to death—marked in time by the funerary feast—and, at the same time, the transition of ancestor worship to the conception of more abstract, immortal deities.
Aptly enough, this beautifully designed jewel of an exhibition is presented within its own “house:” a roofless room-within-a-room constructed for the exhibition in the museum’s Art of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas wing. Thusly contained with the sacred artifacts on display, the viewer gains a sense of intimacy—a material connection to those persons whose deaths they attended, thousands of years ago.