Miniature mummies carved from wood and carefully wrapped in tiny shrouds overlook a model of a Chimú palace, one of the small-scale representations of a lost precolonial world in Design for Eternity: Architectural Models from the Ancient Americas. Recently opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the exhibition has 30 loans alongside objects from the museum’s own collections demonstrating the variety of these architectural models, often made for funerary rituals, from the Incas, Maya, Aztec, and other societies before them.
Design for Eternity is a small exhibition, matching the stature of its artifacts, yet suggests a lot about the daily life and sacred rites of ancient American cultures in present-day Mexico, Honduras, and Peru. The small mummies in particular demonstrate how the separation between death and life was very different, as the dead loom large over a festive gathering. They’re part of the most elaborate model in the exhibition, on loan from the Museo Huacas de Moche, and on view in the United States for the first time. Curator Joanne Pillsbury wrote in a post for the Now at the Met blog that the “royal dead were not buried during the Inca period, but were instead kept around and periodically celebrated by their descendants. Inca mummies were maintained in palatial accommodations, given new garments on occasion, and brought out to be honored at feasts and other celebrations.” She adds that the model is also significant in dating between 1440 to 1665, covering the end of the Chimú Empire, the occupation of the Inca, and the early days of the Spanish. She explains that it was found at an obscure site, as if hidden:
This model was thus interred in a venerated place, out of view of the new rulers. Was it a stand-in for, or a means of remembering, key rituals once held in the great city itself? Or was it, in itself, an offering to the ever-present dead? This model, and others in Design for Eternity, remind us of the deep interpenetrations of the living and the dead in the ancient Andes, as revealed in some of the most complex and intriguing works known from the ancient Americas.
Another model of a Nayarit home holds a feast in its upper story with revelers gathered arm-in-arm, while in the lower part of the building are what appear to be corpses, possibly representing the Nayarit tradition of interring their dead below their homes. Unlike architectural models today that render architecture before its construction, these were vessels that had a spiritual purpose, and their themes reflect their role as objects made for the tomb. Rare documentation survives on how exactly these effigies were used, although some were vessels for holding fluids possibly related to the funerary processes. Others were musical instruments, such as one from the Lambayeque culture in present-day Peru, as demonstrated in an included video from the American Museum of Natural History:
While the Mesoamerican wooden and thatched buildings have disappeared, hundreds of years later, the models — made from stone, ceramic, clay and silver — preserve some vision of the architecture of these cultures. Each model is only about the size of a dollhouse, and the Met provides little flashlights so visitors can peer into the dark spaces, where figures are often carved into the rooms. Illuminating the small bodies built into the models, you can look back centuries to these ancient lives.
Design for Eternity: Architectural Models from the Ancient Americas continues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through September 18, 2016.