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from the trenches
Museums: Ancient Americans Volume 60 Number 5, September/October 2007
by Zach Zorich

If you think of human history as one grand narrative, as curator Jonathan Haas of Chicago's Field Museum does, then the Ancient Americas exhibition is a chance to see how the plot developed over 13,000 years and across two continents.

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A replica of the Aztec "sun stone" depicting the birth and destruction of the universe is on display at the Field Museum. (Courtesy the Field Museum)

A winding path leads visitors on a chronological trip through the Americas beginning with a re-creation of the landscape around Chicago circa 10,000 b.c., projected on the walls of the entryway. Mammoths bellow in the distance and elk herds wander the twilight landscape creating a feel for what Clovis culture hunters must have experienced. A full-scale replica of a pueblo from the American Southwest not only explains life in the early farming culture, but also leads visitors into a discussion of Native American ideas of community. The exhibition draws on the museum's extensive collections to reveal well-known peoples--the Maya, Aztec, and Inca--as well as many lesser-known cultures, such as the Zapotec and Wari. Some spectacular examples of ancient craftsmanship are on display, including Moche effigy pots with lifelike representations of the faces of people who lived in Peru more than 1,200 years ago. Not every artifact, however, is a masterpiece. "When you get to empires, you get mass productions of things where quality is not your main concern, it's quantity," says Haas. "There's one whole wall in our Aztec room that my wife looked at and said, 'This is pretty crappy stuff.'"

Throughout the exhibition, television screens show interviews with indigenous people, giving them a voice unmediated by anthropologists. A series of "you are there" scenes provide a glimpse of what life might have been like for the average kid in past cultures. One conveys the anticipation of a boy waiting for his older brother, who is a runner delivering messages on the Inca road network.

Visitors should plan about three hours to take in the entire 19,000-square-foot hall, but it is worth the time. The exhibition succeeds admirably at showing the depth and diversity of ancient cultures in the Americas and how they extend into the modern day. "I don't want people to come away with a sense that these people were the 'exotic other,'" says Haas. "I want visitors to feel that there are some real similar patterns here that relate to their lives."

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© 2007 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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