The Mayan Heritage through the eyes of Museum Popul Vuh

The Dresden Codex from the Museum of Popul Vuh

DID YOU KNOW?

The Popol Vuh is one of the most important pieces of indigenous literature in the Americas. The book tells the K’iche’-Mayan version of creation, the adventures of the twin gods, Hunahpú and Xbalanqué, and the history of the K’iche’ Maya until the Spanish conquest. While the author is unknown, the Popol Vuh was first written in approximately AD 1550.

A scroll at The Popul Vuh Museum in Guatemala
A scroll at The Popul Vuh Museum in Guatemala

While the original Popol Vuh text has been lost, the oldest remaining transcript was made by Dominican Friar Francisco Ximenez during the early 18th century. He is also the author of the first known Spanish translation of the Popol Vuh, entitled Empiezan las Historias del Origen de los Indios de esta Provincia de Guatemala (The Beginning of the Origen Stories of the Indians of this Province of Guatemala), which is now housed in the Ayer Collection of the Newberry Library of Chicago after being extracted from the library of the University of Guatemala by the French Abbot Charles Etienne Brasseur de Bourbourg, who was the first to publish the complete manuscript. Since then, there have been numerous editions and translations.

The literal translation of “Popol Vuh” is “Book of the Mat.” For Mesoamericans, mats were a symbol of authority and the power of kings. They were used as seats for high-ranking rulers and individuals. For this reason, the title is also translated as “Book of Counsel.” Paraphrased from “El Popol Vuh”.[popolvuh.ufm.edu/index.php/El_Popol_Vuh]

Dr. Oswaldo Chinchilla, the curator of the Museo Popol Vuh – one of the most interesting and complete museums of Mayan heritage in Guatemala – spoke to us about the museum: its history, its future, and how the museum is contributing to the preservation and understanding of Guatemala’s cultural heritage.

Tell us about the history of the Museo Popol Vuh.

In 1978, George and Ella Castillo offered their extensive collection of pre-Colombian and colonial art, plus traditional Guatemalan textiles to Francisco Marroquín University. This was the beginning of Museo Popol Vuh. The exhibition includes artifacts from the Pacific Coast, the Highlands and the Lowlands from the Paleo-Indian (15,000 to 9,000 BC), Archaic-Preclassic (9,000 BC – AD 250), Early Classic (AD 250-600), Late Classic (AD 600-900) and Post Classic (AD 900 to 1500) periods.

How aware are foreign tourists of this museum?

Interestingly, we have a very good tourist attendance. The problem, however, is that most tourists avoid Guatemala City because they are unaware of the tourist destinations in the capital. The moment they get off the plane, they rush to La Antigua and other tourist destinations. They’re mostly here to catch a flight. So, it’s just when they take a very short tour of the city that they realize that there is a wealth of information on Mayan history and culture available at the museum.

What sets the Museo Popol Vuh apart from other museums in Guatemala?

We are pioneers and trendsetters in many ways. For example, we started educational courses relevant to the museum. There are different subjects of study which help keep interest in the history of this culture alive. We hold workshops and talks by various archaeologists who are actively involved in digs around the country and who give the students a first-hand perspective on the subjects they are studying.

How aware do you think Guatemalans are of their heritage, specifically the museum’s namesake, the Popol Vuh?

The Popol Vuh is a compulsory book in the syllabus of many schools and colleges. But paradoxical ly, many Guatemalans are illiterate and have never attended school. For this portion of the community, unfortunately, there is no access to information about their rich cultural heritage. So, if we don’t keep taking concrete steps to preserve this legacy, we stand the chance of losing it and its teachings.

What steps are being taken to prevent this from happening?

Francisco Marroquín University, in collaboration with the Museo Popol Vuh, is committed to fostering enthusiasm and creating a spirit of inquiry in the community about the Mayan cultural heritage. A lot of schools hold day-trips here, and we are constantly holding competitions and workshops to keep people abreast of information on excavations happening around the country and of the latest research papers.

What does the future holds for the Museo Popol Vuh as an institution?

We constantly try to be innovative and attempt to set an example – many other museums are now following suit. We insist on research at the institution so we can generate new knowledge. If museums like us don’t constantly evolve, then instead of being research institutions, they tend to become exhibition halls. We are a small institution, and making big plans for the future is difficult; the only way to achieve our desired goals is to multiply our knowledge and experience. We need to do more research, keep up with new and powerful technologies, exhibit and publish our findings, and take our resources to new places.

The Museo Popol Vuh is located on the campus of Francisco Marroquin University at 6a. Calle Final, Zone 10, Guatemala City. The museum is open Monday through Friday from 9 AM to 5 PM and on Saturdays from 9 AM until 1 PM. Entrance is Q35 for adults, Q15 for students with ID, and Q10 for children under 12. There is a small fee to take photos or video (Q15 or Q25, respectively); tripods and flash are prohibited.

For more information about the museum or their schedule of events and courses, call 2338-7896, emailpopolvuh@ufm.edu or go to popolvuh.ufm.edu.

[This article was first published in the Spanish and English Bilingual magazine, Que Pasa. You can read it here]

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