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500 Tragic Years of Mayan Life, Shown in an Exhibition of Outreach and Hope

    By Catherine Elton
    New York Times

    Monday 23 August 2004

    GUATEMALA CITY, Aug. 22 - Guatemala is known by most of the world for the soaring pyramids of the ancient Maya and the colorful weavings of their contemporary descendants. Folkloric images of the Maya Indians have been used to help attract tourism to a nation that was until eight years ago ravaged by a three-decade civil war. But within Guatemala, the Maya are often treated with no such respect.

    Many Mayan leaders say they are disappointed with the scarce improvements in opportunities for the Maya, who make up roughly half of Guatemala's population and who most keenly suffered the war's wrath.

    But now a traveling exhibition titled "Why Are We the Way We Are?," which opened in Guatemala's capital last week and will continue until June of next year, is trying to prompt a long-overdue national dialogue between the country's dominant nonindigenous population and the Maya. Created by the Guatemala-based Center for Mesoamerican Research with the collaboration of some top American museologists, the show has rallied support from business groups, media and government itself, elevating it to nothing less than a national event. At the exhibition's inauguration, Vice President Eduardo Stein of Guatemala hailed it as a "watershed in history."

    "The significance of most shows comes from superlatives: the most beautiful Fabergé eggs, the only intact tyrannosaurus rex, the most Monets in one place at a time," said Jim Volkert, the associate director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, who was a consultant on the exhibition. "This show isn't that at all. Its significance is that it has the ability to affect the culture of a country, and that is rare in a museum context," he said.

    Some indigenous activists say the Maya are the victims of a de facto apartheid instigated by Guatemala's non-Maya, while other Guatemalans deny that racism exists. What is certain, however, is that Guatemala is the country with the second-greatest income disparity between rich and poor in Latin America, behind only Brazil, according to the World Bank. And on which side of the divide citizens here find themselves depends largely on whether they are Indian.

    United Nations statistics reveal that for every 10 Guatemalans who live in extreme poverty, seven are indigenous. Guatemala's version of a truth commission, the Historical Clarification Commission, concluded that during the country's armed conflict the vast majority of those who were killed, raped or tortured or who disappeared were Maya Indians. Some 200,000 were killed in the 36-year conflict. The commission also concluded that the military's scorched earth campaign amounted to genocide against the Mayas.

    The show material is based on scholarly research on inter-ethnic relations and feedback from focus groups, and it forms part of a larger educational campaign here devoted to diversity. But for Tani Adams, the show's executive director, an exhibition format was the most logical way to promote a profound reckoning with a social ill that 500 years of history has rendered acceptable and even invisible to much of the population, indigenous and nonindigenous alike.

    "Thousands of thousands of books have been written about this and are clearly not making a difference," said Ms. Adams, who is also the director of the Center for Mesoamerican Research, which created the show. "It's not like you read a book and say 'I'm never going to be racist again.' And I think a lot of training to deal with racism or ethnocentrism basically tells people, 'It's bad that you are racist, do something different.' But if you don't understand how you inherited these ideas you can't let them go. You need to go through a personal, transformative experience, a disorganizing experience, something that makes you question ideas you have always held unconsciously."

    Claudio Tam Muro, an Argentine artist and designer, assumed the challenge of producing that experience in a 500-square-foot show that could be packed up on the back of a flatbed and taken to some of the most far-flung parts of the country after its six weeks in the capital. As a result, the show is almost devoid of the objects or artifacts that are the backbone of most museum shows. Rather, it relies on life-size photography (providing some visitors with their first experience of looking eye to eye with an indigenous person), graphics, video, audio, short texts and interactive tools.

    Mr. Muro set out to use different sensory media to communicate the show's message. The result is a roughly hourlong zigzagging circuit divided into two sections. The bulk of the first section addresses the historical construction of discrimination. It is careful not to omit mentions of the discrimination that existed in pre-Colombian societies, before moving on to the violence of the Spanish conquest, the segregated society of the colonial years, and the crusade for assimilation during the Republican era. This section is filled with tightly spaced areas whose walls are painted in rich, dark colors. It culminates in a small black space with a low ceiling that produces for the visitor the claustrophobia that Mr. Muro says is "what discrimination feels like."

    Afterward the visitor emerges into the second section, which addresses modern-day Guatemalan race relations. It explores stereotypes and their effects; the staggering statistics of how the two Guatemalans live; and it features testimonies about how many Guatemalans see their identity. In this section the spaces get progressively larger and the colors brighter, while the content becomes a more upbeat message about diversity.

    "The easiest thing to create is a polemic or an exhibit of anger, but that will only work for the committed," said Elaine Heumann Gurian, former deputy director of the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, who was a consultant on the show. "This exhibit points no fingers,'' she said. "It says we are all in this together and have to solve it together."

    The text in the show is spare, understated, almost simple. But the the creators hope that conversations and debates will emerge from it. For instance, Juan Luis Hernandez left the exhibition recently with ideas he said he hadn't ever considered. The Maya Indians who crouch over the earth on his father's plantation and the servant who cleans his room are the only indigenous people this 17-year-old has ever talked to. And he admits, he's never even talked much to any of them.

    He said that what struck him most was a video in which an Indian woman "says that indigenous people do want to be included in society and progress, but don't feel they are allowed to."

    "I had always thought Indians were poor because they didn't want to get ahead in life," Mr. Hernandez said, "but the truth is, I've never asked them what they wanted."

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