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Maya Catalog Receives College Art Association Award

Ancient Maya Art at Dumbarton Oaks has received the 2013 College Art Association’s (CAA) Alfred H. Barr Jr. Award for Smaller Museums, Libraries, Collections, and Exhibitions.

The volume was edited by Joanne Pillsbury (former Director of Pre-Columbian Studies at Dumbarton Oaks and currently Associate Director of Scholarly Programs at the Getty Research Institute), Miriam Doutriaux, Reiko Ishihara-Brito, and Alexandre Tokovinine. Based on the comprehensive study of one of the most important collections of Maya art in the United States, Ancient Maya Art at Dumbarton Oaks is a scholarly yet accessible introduction to one of the great traditions of sculpture and painting in ancient America.

Monumental panels, finely worked jade ornaments, exquisitely painted ceramic vessels, and other objects—most created in the first millennium CE—are presented in full color and analyzed in light of recent breakthroughs in understanding their creation, function, and meaning in Maya ritual and history. Meticulous catalogue descriptions of nearly one hundred works are supplemented by scholarly essays from an international team of scholars that includes the United States, Guatemala, and Mexico.

Joanne Pillsbury, Editor and former Director of Pre-Columbian Studies at Dumbarton Oaks, on the Maya Catalog project:

“One way in which this project is different from other catalogue projects is that we thought it might be a good idea to invite the specialists to Dumbarton Oaks at the same time, to give them a chance to interact more, challenge each other, and share ideas. For the initial workshop in the summer of 2009 we therefore brought together some fifteen scholars, in some cases from further afield, including Guatemala and Mexico, in addition to the core team of the four editors. When I was at Dumbarton Oaks, Director Jan Ziolkowski often used to ask in what ways is a Dumbarton Oaks residential fellowship different from just giving scholars a grant to stay home and write? It was his way of challenging us to think about how to enhance the intellectual experience of the residency. I think this project was a perfect example of what can happen when scholars share ideas informally, confront each other directly, and interact over a sustained period of time in person. In the normal course of academic life, the soil scientists and malacologists do not often speak to the epigraphers and art historians, so the gathering ended up transforming the research in a very fruitful way.”

Q&A with members of the Maya Catalog team

What was the occasion for the creation of the catalogue, and can you tell us a little about the process of putting the volume together?

Joanne Pillsbury (former Director of Pre-Columbian Studies at Dumbarton Oaks and currently Associate Director of Scholarly Programs at the Getty Research Institute): In the late 1980s Elizabeth Boone, then director of Pre-Columbian Studies at Dumbarton Oaks, decided that it was time for a new series of catalogues of the Pre-Columbian collection. The collection had been published, in a rather modest fashion, in the 1940s, and more elaborately in the late 1950s. Robert Woods Bliss himself was very involved in these publications, and particularly with the 1957 catalogue he was interested in developing a new type of art catalogue, one that combined very high-quality images—in this case by the noted portrait photographer, Nickolas Muray—with texts that reflected the latest scholarship. He enlisted Samuel Lothrop of the Peabody Museum at Harvard to write the entries and essays, and to oversee the contributions of other scholars. The new series drew upon the expertise of multiple scholars to examine the collection in light of the profound transformations in our understanding of the Pre-Columbian world between 1957 and 1996, when the first of the new series, on the Andean collection, was published. Jeffrey Quilter, Elizabeth's successor, continued the series, working on both the Olmec catalogue and the preparation of the ancient Mexican volume.

I was particularly interested in taking on the Maya collection for the next volume in the series. We have seen considerable advances in the field of Maya studies in recent years, particularly in epigraphy, the study of inscriptions. Elizabeth Benson, the first curator of the collection, was energetic in publishing studies based on the collection, but it is startling now to reflect on what was known when her first beautiful publications on the Maya monuments were prepared, versus how much more is known now. Despite the fame of the collection, it was actually not that well known to a broader scholarly world, so the time seemed right to prepare a comprehensive study of the works.

In our early discussions about the project, Miriam Doutriaux and I agreed that it was essential to retain the collaborative spirit of the earlier catalogues, and we proposed inviting a variety of scholars, representing a range of disciplines and approaches, to Dumbarton Oaks to study the collection. We were fortunate in having generous support for this initiative from both Jan Ziolkowski, the director of Dumbarton Oaks, and Gudrun Bühl, the director of the museum. We were also particularly interested in including an international group of scholars, not just U.S.-based specialists. Scholars working in the field of materials science were high on our list, as the integration of research from this field into archaeology and art history has been one of the truly significant developments in recent years. We also benefitted enormously from the presence of our postdoc, Alexandre Tokovinine, a recent Ph.D. in anthropology from Harvard whose work in the field of epigraphy contributed in a very fundamental way to the success of the volume. Our other postdoc, Reiko Ishihara-Brito, another terrific Mayanist, was crucial to the overall shape and articulation of the volume. Other critical members of the team included Bridget Gazzo of the Dumbarton Oaks Library, Emily Jacobs from the program of Pre-Columbian Studies, photographer Joe Mills, and many others. Colleagues in the Publications Department, especially Kathy Sparkes and Sara Taylor, were phenomenal. The research and writing is only half the story of a project like this, and Sara's insights and guidance in the transformation of the manuscript into a book were pivotal to the overall quality of the catalogue.

You mention the contributions of an international team of scholars. Could you say more about this collaboration?

Joanne Pillsbury: One way in which this project is different from other catalogue projects is that we thought it might be a good idea to invite the specialists to Dumbarton Oaks at the same time, rather than bring them in sequentially. In that way, contributors would have a chance to interact more, challenge each other, and share ideas. We invited some fifteen scholars to Dumbarton Oaks, in some cases from further afield, including Guatemala and Mexico, in addition to the core team of the four editors, who were also authors. We gathered for several weeks in the summer of 2009 for the initial workshop, which was very, very stimulating. When I was director of studies, Jan Ziolkowski often used to ask in what ways is a Dumbarton Oaks residential fellowship different from just giving scholars a grant to stay home and write? It was his way of challenging us to think about how to enhance the intellectual experience of the residency. I think this project was a perfect example of what can happen when scholars share ideas informally, confront each other directly, and interact over a sustained period of time in person. In the normal course of academic life, the soil scientists and malacologists do not often speak to the epigraphers and art historians, so the gathering ended up transforming the research in a very fruitful way. The resulting entries and essays, by Barbara Arroyo, Ron Bishop, Oswaldo Chinchilla, John Clark, Barbara Fash, Ginny Fields, Steve Houston, Simon Martin, Fred Nelson, Megan O'Neil, Dorie Reents-Budet, Karl Taube, Gene Titmus, Loa Traxler, and Adrián Velázquez, are much richer for the discussions at the workshop. We were very lucky to work with such a talented group.

Can you give us some examples of how recent breakthroughs in Maya scholarship informed the volume essays? How did the research impact museum practices or vice versa?

Miriam Doutriaux (Pre-Columbian Collection Exhibition Associate, Dumbarton Oaks): Our understanding of ancient Maya history and culture has been transformed over the past half century by groundbreaking discoveries in the fields of epigraphy, archaeology, and art history. This body of knowledge came to bear on the research presented in the catalogue--and was in turn enriched by many new findings.

As Joanne mentioned, the volume is the product of fruitful dialogue among scholars who gathered together around the collection. Over the course of several weeks, we took objects off display or out of storage and presented each in turn for examination and discussion by the group. The result was vibrant conversation, which often continued over lunch and beyond. Many of the findings reflect the collaborative nature of this encounter, incorporating varied commentary and information gleaned from different fields to provide a full and nuanced understanding of each piece, and oftentimes, new insights on Maya society as a whole.

Carved Panel PC.B.537 is a good example. It represents a well-dressed lord, whose skirt was discovered to bear the only known Maya dedicatory text that mentions buhk or clothing. A combination of epigraphy, archaeology, and bibliographic research made it possible to trace the panel’s origin to the Chancala River Valley, east of Palenque, Mexico. Moreover, the date carved on the panel, AD 800, postdates all known inscriptions from Palenque, and suggests that the Chancala kingdom may have flourished briefly after Palenque’s demise--giving a sense of political dynamics at the end of the Classic Period.

In another example of collaboration across disciplines, the mosaic mask (PC.B.557) was documented by experts in the fields of geology, mineralogy, conchology, plant and animal biology, and physical anthropology. Analyses from AMS radiocarbon dating to x-ray diffraction confirmed its antiquity and the variety of component materials, among them jade, turquoise, and a rare piece of tortoiseshell. The makers of the mask had access to long-distance trade networks that reached as far afield as the southwestern U.S. during the Postclassic Period.

Research also provided new information about twentieth-century conservation practices, including the heavy restoration of some ceramic vessels, and the presence of painted dental plaster on the mosaic mask. Some carved greenstone pieces have traces of a red pigment identified as vermillion, which was routinely applied during the mid- to late-twentieth century to make finely incised designs more visible. These findings informed research, and highlight the importance of documenting the nature and impact of modern interventions on objects.

Overall, the catalogue was a wonderful opportunity to renew our attention to all of the Maya objects collected by Robert and Mildred Bliss. With fewer than half on display in the museum, one gets a skewed impression of the collection as a whole. Pieces such as the small carved jade ornaments--Robert Bliss’ personal favorites, and once the most prized possessions of Maya nobles--are hard to display effectively in the Johnson Pavilion. In the catalogue, however, they evidence a broad spectrum of tools and techniques, and offer new insights on the creative artistry of the carvers.

Finally, the catalogue inspired our current exhibition, All Sides Considered: New Research on the Maya Collection, which focuses on the scholarly research process--the slow, painstaking work that underlies groundbreaking discoveries. Visitors are invited to listen to a rattle bowl, flip through x-ray images, examine a 3-D digital model, and compare images or specimens. In doing so, they experience the scholarly process that has shed light on so many facets of Maya objects and culture.

Can you tell us a little about the production process for this volume? What were specific challenges solved by the Publications team?

Sara Taylor (Managing Editor, Art and Archaeology, Dumbarton Oaks): The Publications department had been eagerly awaiting the submission of the catalogue, and we entered production almost immediately after receiving the hefty manuscript and its nearly three hundred illustrations.

We began, as always, by copyediting the manuscript. Since so many scholars contributed to the catalogue, it was essential that a single reader carefully review the entire text to ensure that it was correct, accessible, and consistent. At the same time, we evaluated the photographs of the objects in our collection, working to match the color of the photographs with the color of the actual objects. (Although such a step might seem unnecessary, it is critical, as photographs can often distort the appearance of an object by making it appear too dark, too light, too yellow, too red, etc.). After completing our text editing and image evaluation, we were able to move to the most exciting (but challenging) phase of the production process: design. Integrating the text and images into a pleasing layout--that highlighted the beauty of the objects in the collection and that maximized the impact of the supplemental and comparative images--was no easy task. The production team and volume editors deliberated for weeks, making major adjustments and minor tweaks until everyone was satisfied with the final appearance of the catalogue. After the design and layout were finalized, the team reviewed the proofs, ensuring that the text and scholarly apparatus (plate and figure lists, object descriptions, captions, bibliographies, endnotes and in-text references, and indexes) were free of errors and that the photographs, line drawings, and supplemental images were of the highest possible quality. We checked and double-checked (then triple-checked) all aspects of the catalogue... and then we cheered when we finally sent the manuscript to the printer in January 2012.

Any five-hundred-page illustrated volume with multiple contributors will be an enormous undertaking. Although this publication was certainly no exception, we were fortunate to have a talented and dedicated team of volume editors, authors, interns, and freelancers (copyeditors, proofreaders, indexers, and designers) to contribute to every phase of the project.

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