Investing in the Past to Build a Better Future: The Copan Sculpture Museum in Honduras, Central America

Investing in the Past to Build a Better Future: The Copán Sculpture. Museum in Honduras, Central America

In May 1993, the heads of state of the five countries with Maya archeological sites signed a document in which they committed their respective nations to ecological conservation, conscientious cultural resource management, and the involvement of local people in the development of tourism in the Mundo Maya, or "Maya World." The Declaration of Copán reflects the ideals of those five governments and of many of the local and international scholars who participated in conservation and research projects in this part of the world. The declaration was signed in the Great Plaza of the Maya ruins of Copán, in western Houduras, where many of these ideals have begun to become a reality.

The Instituto Hondureño de Antropología e Historia (IHAH) has had conservation issues at the top of its agenda for over the IHAH invited Gordon Willey of Harvard's Peabody Museum to design a long-term plan for the protection of the ruins. This was a first step toward the responsible development of infrastructure for increasing tourist flow and revenues to the ruins and the adjacent modern town of Copán Ruinas. This planning document and subsequent innovative decisions by the IHAH has enabled in to be a few steps ahead of public and private development efforts. Today Copán continues to be one of the best designed and maintained archaeological parks in the Maya world.

Origins, Design, and Execution of the Museum Project

Beginning in 1985, we began a long-term endeavor to conserve and record the tens of thousands of architectural sculptures that lie littered about the surface of the civic-ceremonial enter. The sculptures were deteriorating at the site due to dramatic daily changes in humidity and temperature. Many of the smaller pieces were also in danger of ending up in tourists' backpacks. The Copán Mosaics Project was designed to document all of the stone sculpture fragments in photographs and drawings, build new facilities for the ordering, storage, and conservation of the pieces, and when possible, fit the sculptures back together to reconstruct building facades and messages that were communicated to the Maya populate by these extraordinarily-elaborate public monuments. As Project Artist Sculpture Coordinator, Barbara Fash re-fit the tenoned, mosaic sculpture fragments from over a dozen buildings in the civic-ceremonial center and from six other sites in the surrounding valley settlements.

As the project gained momentum, it became apparent that the Copán sculptures provided a wealth of information and insights about the ancient Maya world. The building and their sculptural adornment were designed to convey information about the power and perquisites of divine rule in this kingdom.

The monuments were not only grandiose edifices, but giant billboards designed to enlighten the people on critical aspects of dynastic history, royal ancestor cults, political structure, warfare, state ritual, the cosmos, and the role of the royal line in the securing of bountiful harvests and a beneficent social order. The aesthetic sophistication and artistry they displayed was far greater than even we had imagined. Clearly, neither the world nor the IHAH were properly served by housing these masterpieces in storage facilities where only a handful of people would appreciate them.

Rafael Leonardo Callejas visited the ruins within two weeks of his inauguration as President of Honduras in January 1990, and was convinced that the premier cultural monument of his nation could serve as a means of fostering a sense of national identity. He was so moved by the ruins and the conservation work that he asked how he might help the IHAH and us to achieve our objectives. Our immediate answer was that Copán needed a new museum devoted exclusively to sculpture, both to preserve it from the elements, and to share its beauty and diversity of expression with his countrymen and the world at large. President Callejas requested detailed plans and projections for such a facility, which we prepared over the next few months. He was impressed by the design created by our team-which included ourselves, Project Co-Directors Ricardo Agurcia and Rudy Larios, and Honduran architect Angela Stassano - and provided Presidential discretionary funds for the construction of the museum building. Additional founding was secured through found-raising efforts by t non-profit Copán Association, which administered the construction of the building, and the offices of Callejas' successor, present Honduran President Carlos Roberto Reina. The costs incurred in preparing the exhibits themselves were covered by out original Mosiacs Project, then expanded and called the Copán Acropolis Archaeological Project and founded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. The Acropolis Project was directed by William Fash and administered and partially founded by the IHAH and its Director Dr. Olga Joya.

The museum was designed as a statement of how the Maya rulers and allied nobility saw their vision cared in stone by their most skilled artisans and sculptors. Its centerpiece was a full-scale, meticulously accurate reproduction of an elaborate Early Classic temple named "Rosalila" by its discoverer Ricardo Agurcia. This temple was the axis mundi of the civic-ceremonial center of the Copán kingdom. The first story of Rosalila depicts the founder of the dynasty in the underworld, with the sun in its avian guise, spreading its wings as it rises above the underworld. On the second story, the sacred mountain and its most precious gift, the maize from which the Maya believed their creator fashioned them, rises above the sun and the horizon. Farming the face of the mountain are two heads of a bicephalic celestial dragon, whose body forms the arch of heaven on the upper part of the temple's roof crest.

The design of the museum itself replicates the Maya cosmogram depicted in Rosalila and on other sculptures at Copán and other sites. It is oriented to the four cardinal directions and divided vertically into the three layers of the underworld, the surface world, and the heavens, with Rosalila as the central axis mundi. On the lower level of the museum are numerous exhibits related to underworld themes such as ancestor worship, the royal ancestors themselves, caves and other portals to the underworld, mythological bats, and death. On the second floor of the museum are sculpture exhibits that illustrate themes related to the surface world and the day-to-day concerns of the living: fertility, maize and the sacred mountain, astrology, ball games, warfare, sacrifice, the role of scribes and sculptors, the royal council, the royal residence, a royal ancestor shrine, god houses, and perquisites of non-royal nobles. The central part of the roof is open to sky, bathing the replica of Rosalila in natural light and rain as the original was in ancient times. The ceiling that frames the portal to the sky is painted with representations from Copán sculptures of the sun, moon, Venus, and the constellations. The museum exhibits seven complete building facades, elements from 14 other structures, and three original free-standing ruler portraits or stelae, which have been replaced with replicas on-site.

The museum was inaugurated by Honduran President Carlos Roberto Reina on August 3, 1996, and now serves to enthrall and enlighten visitors from all over the globe. Members of the local community of Copán Ruinas are justifiably proud of their museum, and happily visit it free of charge. It was as result of their efforts that the building itself, and the exhibits it houses, has proven so impressive and well appreciated by all those who enter its confines. The people of Copán Ruins were responsible for every aspect of building the museum and its exhibits. Each played his/her part and will likely be recounting, if not expanding upon their role as the years go by and the museum acquires age and prestige.

Cultural Context and the Training of Specialists

Over the 11-year duration of the Mosiacs and Copán Acropolis Project, more than 100 people were trained in the investigations restoration at the archeological site or as part of the museum work. Newly elected local officials always attempted to persuade us to bend to their partisan interests. Through it all, we managed to retain most of the very best people, and there were always other talented people in the town anxious to try their hand at a new trade.

Among the local technical staff, the sculptor's work was perhaps the most compelling. José Marcelino Valdez and Jacinto Abrego Ramírez were talladores, or stone carvers, who were making a modest living carving small replicas of the sculptures for local souvenir stores. With no formal training in Maya art, they were dependent on Barbara Fash to guide them in the creation of precise and faithful replicas of the Rosalila reliefs. At first they resisted the idea of producing clay replicas and casting them in cement, insisting that as stone carvers, they preferred to work in stone. When the technique was demonstrated and they saw the clay could be both added to, and subtracted from, they come around very quickly and were soon chuckling about how much easier and more fun it was to work clay than stone.

International Cooperation

One of the goals of the Mosaics and museum projects is to document Copán sculptures that are no longer in Honduras. The Peabody Museum has a collection of Copán artifacts rivaled only by the British Museum. Over 300 original sculptures from Copán, hundreds of plaster casts and artifacts made their way to Cambridge in the 1890's with the permission of the Honduran Government. Among these sculptures are 25 stone blocks carved with a hieroglyphic inscription from Temple 26, which once stood above the famed Hieroglyphic Stairway, the longest stone text in the Maya area. David Stuart, Associate Director of the Maya Corpus Project housed at the Peabody Museum, worked with Barbara Fash to refit the text. Stuart's decipherment showed the text was significant because it represented a continuation of the dynastic history described in detail on the hieroglyphic steps leading up to the Temple. Inside the temple it appears that the ancient Copánees were spelling out their history in their Maya dialect side with a Teotihuacan-style font. Since no extensive writing is known for the great central Mexican metropolis, this is serving to enhance our understanding of that culture as well as international relations in the Pre-Columbian past.

Struggling with the dilemma of how to reunite the sculpture blocks for exhibit in the new sculpture museum, Barbara Fash began molding the Peabody's 25 pieces in January, 1996. Since conservation issues are a major concern, she experimented with paper molds instead of the more popular latex and silicon molds. Paper molds were part of the technology of the 19th century and all of the Peabody casts from Copán were cast from them. Although long fallen from use, Fash decided to try the paper mold approach because of its more benign qualities and her reluctance to use resinous consolidants on the stones themselves. Aided by the conservation staff at the Peabody, the paper molding techniques were resuscitated and improved upon for the Temple 26 inscription. The paper molds were successfully completed and transported to Honduras in July, 1996. There, the trained Honduran replica personnel and Harvard students aided in the casting process. The casts were made with a plaster front on a reinforced cement backing. These were then carefully reassembled by skilled masons under the direction of Stuart and Fash. The completed wall, seen together for the first time in our lifetimes, graces the second floor of the Copán museum. The Director of the IHAH, Olga Joya, commented upon seeing it for the first time that this was her favorite exhibit in the museum. Her assessment was due to the exquisite beauty of the carved hieroglyphic text, rendered in a flowing style, and the tremendous new information it gives us as scholars. The exhibit also personifies the collaboration represented between two countries, Honduras and the went into making this museum possible and meaningful for cultures the world over.

Honduran Culture and Society

In the meantime, the attractions of Copán are increasing. Marcelino Valdez and Jacinto Abrego Ramírez have trained two apprentices and the IHAH has opened a school for artisans in Copán. The artisans come from all over the country and from various ethnic groups besides the ladino majority. They will be learning stone and wood carving, and ceramics, and eventually take their skills and their new-founded appreciation for Pre-Columbian Honduran artistic traditions back to their communities. In Copán, besides a greatly-expended market for curios of all sorts and in all mediums, there has been a boom in the hotel and restaurant trade, horseback and vehicle excursions outside the main archaeological park, and river rafting. Eco-tourism is now being developed and an entrepreneurial spirit is growing by leaps and bounds. For tour guides and many merchants, learning about the Maya past in an economic necessity which is taken quite seriously. For the rest of the townspeople and the thousands of children who are bussed to Copán each year, visits to the ruins and the museum, instruction in school, and the availability of visual reminders of all sorts are serving to engender a new awareness and appreciation of the past.

Whose Past and Whose Future?

The population of Honduras is a mix of people from numerous cultural and geographic backgrounds. The key for the people and government of Honduras in striving to foster a sense of national identity, is to organize relations in such a way that no one group suffers at the expense of another, as has often been the case. Cultural diversity is being promoted by anthropologists and social planners as a source of strength and cultural distinction, forecasting a special national unity in Honduras. In other parts of Honduras, traditional Lenca and Pech populations peacefully argue for a voice in politics. They want the same respect and access to resources such as health care, and sanitary conditions, while at the same time maintaining their cultural autonomy.

The opening of the museum will have both short and long-term efforts. Economically, the town felt the impact of the new facility literally overnight. Whereas before there was no motivation for most people to tap into the tourist market, now many are scrambling to take part in a rising and highly remunerative industry. Many people have raised the question whether all of this is happening at the expense of the Maya and their culture, or changing the nature of the rural town of Copán Ruinas.

For many years, the Ladinos have denigrated against the Maya culture and people. Now, when there is more interest in the Maya culture from outside, the Ladinos are quick to use the Maya name and culture for their own profit. Some would have capitalized on the present market boom-referred to by many as "Maya mania" - and proposed call the new facility the Maya Sculpture Museum, another example of the dominant culture using the Maya name to their advantage. as anthropologists we lent a humanistic voice to this debate and in the end secured the dropping of the word "Maya" in the museum's title.

No one in Copán Ruinas practices the Maya religion, nor specks a Mayan language. Traditional Maya culture and language have long ago disappeared from the Copán Valley. However, its roots can still be detected in the physical features and household practices of many townspeople. Increasingly, the townspeople of Copán appreciate the cultural legacy of the ancient Maya and the need to not only conserve it, but to understand it as part of their own cultural heritage

Sadly, only a handful of elders still speak Chorti Maya in Honduras and reside in isolated hamlets. Several thousand Chorti still live across the border in and around the Guatemalan towns of Jocotán and Camotán, and many come to Copán on pilgrimages to see the ruins. Other Maya from the highlands of Guatemala and Chiapas, Mexico, are making the journey to Copán with increasing frequency and interest, as different parts of the ancient city are explored and presented to visitors.

The IHAH is a small and under-funded arm of the government, striving to define a national identity for Honduras while keeping in mind the needs of indigenous people. They have implemented programs to install indigenous teachers in the classroom to teach in their mother tongue and to restore non-Maya cultural sites around the country. They need to capitalize on the Maya culture, like the Copán Sculpture Museum, in order to meet program costs in other parts of the country. By engaging local artisans in workshops and teaching capacities, they are promoting culture awareness in Copán and participating communities. If the sculpture museum has served as a springboard for these programs and others, then many groups now living in the region have benefited.

After two decades of research in Copán and raising our children there, we had become more locally involved with the community. This enabled us to become better acquainted with the teachers in the town and ultimately have opportunities to impact the cultural education of thousands of local children. We always envisioned the museum as an educational tool for people to learn about the ancient Maya legacy and develop a healthy respect for their culture. For us, the future lies in the educational formation of a more culturally generation.

How do the Maya and other indigenous peoples in Central America as a whole benefit? Strengthened by the attention and respect for the artistic achievements of their forebearers, they have the opportunity to build upon that interest. The museum will hopefully open another door on their long march toward equality and recompense for the past social injustices they have suffered.

Although the Museum has labels and a guidebook that present contemporary scholarly interpretations of the sculptures and building conserved and exhibited, we consider these texts very much a "work in progress." The nature of present-day research on the Maya is indeed cumulative and also rapidly changing. The most exciting part about these changes is that the Maya people are speaking out about their current beliefs and traditions, as well as those of their ancestors. It is our hope that the Copán sculpture museum will fulfill Hondurans' goal of building a sense of national identity that incorporates their indigenous past, while also availing that Maya speakers of Guatemala, Belize, and Mexico of an opportunity to observe, assimilate, interpret, and utilize the vision of their ancestors.

Acknowledgments Our thanks and appreciation to the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History, its Director Dr. Olga Joya, the Copán Association and its Executive Director, Ricardo Agurcia, to our many colleagues on the Copán Mosaics and Copán Acropolis Archaeological Projects, the Peabody Museum of Harvard University and to the many friends and co-workers in Copán without whose enthusiastic support the museum could never have been completed.

Selected Reading * Fash, B.W. and W.L. 1996. "Maya Resurrection." Natural History 105. No. 4:24-31. April 1996 * Fash, W., R. Argurcia, B. Fash, and R. Larios. 1996. "The Future of the Maya Past: The Convergence of Conservation and Investigation in Archaeological Research." Palenque Round Table. Vol 10. Ed. M. G. Robertson. * Menchu, R. 1984. I, Rigoberta Menchu, An Indian Woman from Guatemala. London: Verso Editions and NLB. * Sullivan, P.1989. Unfinished Conversations: Mayas and Foreigners Between Two Wars. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

CSQ Issue:

CSQ Disclaimer

Our website houses close to five decades of content and publishing. Any content older than 10 years is archival and Cultural Survival does not necessarily agree with the content and word choice today.