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A Living History of the Maya in Guatemala City

by Laura C. Mallonee on February 21, 2014

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A room in the newly opened Casa de la Memoria Kaji Tulam . (all images courtesy of Sandra Sebastian/Plaza Pública)

Last week’s article on the recently announced Maya Museum in Guatemala City raised some questions. What are the ethical considerations involved in opening a museum about an existing people’s cultural history? And what happens when that culture’s descendants currently live in exploitative conditions?

After we posted the article, we heard from Grahame Russell, who is co-director of Rights Action USA. “Because the wealthy ladino sectors (and their international partners) sniff a market for this stuff (i.e. selling Guatemala as a home to the Maya people), wealthy interests from the ladino dominated sectors of Guatemala forge ahead with this ‘Maya Museum,’ even as they maintain in place a society that is racist and totalitarian in many ways,” he wrote to Hyperallergic via email.

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Russell was on his way to Guatemala City to visit another museum, Casa de la Memoria Kaji Tulam, which just opened February 6. “Kaji Tulam” means “four cosmic points” in the Quiché language, according to Prensa Libre, though other news sources translate the phrase as “Never to Forget.” The museum is located in a former home at the heart of the old city in Zone 1, a poor and crime-ridden area that might be described as the antithesis of the Maya Museum’s wealthy Zone 13.

Visitors entering the 11-room museum are greeted by a wall excerpt of a poem by Humberto Akabal, a K’iche’ Maya poet. “Every once in a while, upside down is my way to remember,” it begins. Operating under the slogan “Para No Olvidar” (“Never to Forget”), the museum explores the Mayas’ often ignored history from pre-Colombian times through the country’s various conflicts and into the present day.

“We consider reflection and knowledge of historical memory to be important,” said Juan Francisco Soto, director of the Centre for Legal Action for Human Rights, the organization funding the museum. The first room explores the Mayan empire, detailing their mathematics, astronomy, codices, and spiritual beliefs. The exhibit also sheds a critical light on the Spanish conquest, the revolution and the dictatorship of President Jorge Ubico, who ruled from 1931 to 1944 and enacted laws that forced Mayas into hard labor.

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The largest part of the museum focuses on the armed conflict that occurred between 1960 and 1996. In one room, a wall bears the names of thousands of Guatemalans who disappeared or were killed during the war, including that of student leader Olverio Castañeda de León and peasant leader Adelina Caal. Also on display are military plans, victim testimonies, and truth reports published by the Catholic Church and the United Nations.

This is now the third museum in Guatemala that seeks to recover the lost history of the Maya. The other two are the Museo Comunitario Rabinal Achi, which documents the genocide against the Achi people, and the tiny Museum of the Martyrs and the Union, Student and Popular Movement of Guatemala in the capital. It remains to be seen how, and if, the planned Maya Museum in Zone 13 will address these horrors from the past.

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