The Springfield Museums is currently presenting a new bilingual exhibit entitled The Body Adorned: Artistry and Legacy of the Ancient Americas.  

The exhibition, presented in English and Spanish, will be on display through February 27th at the D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts. It features rare adornments and textiles made by artists working during the pre-Hispanic period. Some of the objects on display were crafted between 400 and 1500 C.E., and represent the ancient cultures of Colombia, Costa Rica, Panama, Peru and Mexico. 

Zydalis Bauer spoke with Maggie North, Curator of Art at the Springfield Museums, to learn more about the exhibit.  


Read the full transcript:

Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: The Springfield Museums is currently presenting a new bilingual exhibit entitled “The Body Adorned: Artistry and Legacy of the Ancient Americas.”

The exhibition, which is presented in English and Spanish, will be on display through February 27th at the D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts and features rare adornments and textiles made by artists working during the pre-Hispanic period. Some of the objects on display were crafted between 400 and 1500 CE, and represent the ancient cultures of Colombia, Costa Rica, Panama, Peru, and Mexico.

I spoke with Maggie North, Curator of Art at the Springfield Museums, to learn more.

Maggie North, Springfield Museums: This is a really special exhibition because it features artworks that are on loan to the Springfield Museums from the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. So, they’re pieces that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to share with our audiences.

And the exhibition was really born out of a partnership between the Springfield Museums and the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, which is funded by Art Bridges. And through that partnership, the goal was really to share artwork and share collections. So by bringing these works of art to Springfield, we’re achieving that and putting them in an exciting new context.

And it was so much fun to come together and to think about how traditions of body adornment in the ancient Americas resulted in the exquisite objects that are on view.

Zydalis Bauer: This exhibit explores the artistry and legacy of the ancient Americas, as you were just saying.

But one question that I had was, how is ancient America actually defined?

Maggie North: It’s a great question, and I think that the term ancient Americas can be interpreted in a number of ways. In this context, and in art history, when we refer to the arts of the ancient Americas, typically we mean art that was created before the turn of the 16th century in Mesoamerica, Central America, and South America. So, before any European contact. And really exploring and celebrating the Indigenous artworks that were being created during that time.

Certainly the word pre-Hispanic can also be used to define this era. And within the exhibition, visitors will find works of art that were created during this period, including nose rings, pectorals, objects that were made of textiles or fabrics that were handwoven and were incredibly valuable to the cultures who created them.

So it’s an exciting exploration of this time period, which is quite long, chronologically. We have works that are over one thousand years old and works that were created in the 1500s.

Zydalis Bauer: I understand that there are 16 works of art in this exhibit, and as you were saying, they provide a glimpse into that pre-Hispanic era of the ancient Americas.

What did we learn and what have we learned through these artifacts about these people that lived in those times?

Maggie North: One of the wonderful parts of this exhibition is that we learn how these works of art were not just decorative, they weren’t just jewelry as we might think of jewelry today or clothing as we might think of clothing today. In fact, they often served a cultural or social or spiritual purpose.

We know, for example, that some of the textiles that are in the exhibition, a Wari hat, for example, would have been worn both in life and in death. So it may have allowed somebody to express their culture, both within their daily life and in the world beyond or to the gods. And so these are really important windows into the lives of these people.

Often within the adornments, we also see representations of Zoomorphic or animal like forms, and we can learn a lot about how the cultures that are represented valued these animals.

For example, we have a wonderful jaguar pendant, which was made in Costa Rica. And we know that the jaguar was an incredibly important animal thought to be an excellent hunter, a powerful and fierce animal. And so, when an individual donned that pendant, they might take on the attributes of a jaguar.

Zydalis Bauer: When I was walking through the exhibit, the first thing that immediately struck me was how old and how well-preserved these artifacts were. And one of my favorite pieces was a nearly fifteen hundred-year-old Peruvian tunic made out of these vibrant, colorful feathers. I was just amazed how rich the color still was after so much time.

You were just talking about the jaguar, but what are some of your other favorite pieces part of this exhibit?

Maggie North: That feather work tunic you mentioned, it’s just amazing. I think of that piece as sort of one of the showstoppers in the exhibition: you walk in and it just grabs your eye. And it would have been created by really tying or weaving feathers onto plain woven cotton backing. And so it’s amazing that these feathers survive.

And as with so many of the pieces in the exhibition, I love thinking about how that work would have looked like on the body, how it would have shimmered in the sunlight, how it would have moved along with its wearer.

One of my favorite pieces in the exhibition — I mentioned briefly earlier — is in that same gallery. It’s a hat that was created between 700 and 900 CE, and it was also preserved in the arid desert climates of Peru. Represented on the hat, is a four cornered hat, and it’s also on the cover of our exhibition catalog, which folks will see when they go to see the exhibition, are animal-like figures that are reminiscent of llamas or alpacas. And in fact, the hat would have been made from hand-spun wool that was sourced from llamas or alpacas.

And I think it’s a great example of the way in which the exhibition speaks to the artistry, the incredible talent and skill of these makers. Not only has it survived, but it’s just in pristine condition, and the design would have been thoroughly planned before it was executed.

Zydalis Bauer: This exhibit is unique in many different ways. It’s one of the only exhibits right now that is fully bilingual in English and Spanish, as well as encourages guests to interact through a variety of hands-on activities. Usually when you visit a museum, it’s hands off, don’t touch! But this one you’re encouraging people to touch.

Why were these important elements for you to include?

Maggie North: Indeed, we have interactive stations in the exhibition that allow visitors to really engage. For example, we’ve printed a 3D replica, 3D printed replica, of an Aztec stamp that’s on view in the exhibition. The stamp would have originally been used, perhaps on textiles, perhaps directly on the body, and we allow folks to come in and actually take a rubbing of that stamp so they can see what that impression would have looked like.

We also have a weaving station and a tactile station where our visitors can touch materials like the ones on view. It was really important to us that this exhibition, though it looks to the past, is invested in our visitors, is invested in the future.

By making it bilingual, we hope to make it accessible to that many more people, especially in the Springfield area, where we have a thriving Latinx population that we really want to serve. And so we’re excited to bring in these elements.

And one aspect of the exhibition that we haven’t talked about is actually the inclusion of some modern artworks by William Spratling, who is a jewelry designer who was inspired by the artwork of Mesoamerica, especially the indigenous and ancient American works.

And so with that in mind, we can explore how these works of art continue to live on, how the motifs are still being represented in the 20th century and how they live on today. And how we can all interact with these works of art in a tactile sense, in a sensory way, and by creating this dialog between the eras.

Zydalis Bauer: Absolutely! I mean, just seeing the stamp for myself and thinking about how we still use stamps to this day, and it’s like, here we are seeing that this was used the ancient Americas. It was amazing to actually see.

There’s so many details that go into curating an exhibit, from the colors on the walls to what pieces are included to even the fonts that you use. What do you enjoy most about this type of work?

Maggie North: This exhibition was especially fun because it was so collaborative. We had a number of curators putting our heads together. We also relied on our community and an exhibition designer and our installation staff to make this happen.

And my favorite days of the year, I’ll tell you, are the days when the objects are here. We have the cases set up and everything comes together. As you said, there’s so much planning that goes in — from the setup of temporary walls to special lighting in the cases to making sure that our text is readable and understandable.

And so, the days when we get to see all of that come together are really rewarding, and I think that the other curators would share that sentiment with me.

Zydalis Bauer: What questions, feelings, and or even connections do you hope that this exhibit will spark inside visitors?

Maggie North: One of the pieces that we decided to include, from an interpretation standpoint in this exhibition, is a map that shows the modern locations of where the ancient pieces would have come from. So, connecting some of our Peruvian textiles to the places in which they would have been made. And I hope that visitors come in and they can come away with a better sense of the amazing works of art that were being created in these locations, in the Americas.

So often when we talk about American art or we talk about art of the Americas, I think that we think of the United States. But the story is so much broader, and so I’m excited to bring in this expanded look at the arts of the Americas and to think about the way in which those artistic traditions do endure and have become an integral part of the story of art history.