Waiting for the Renaissance

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Waiting for the Renaissance

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Though you’ll have to hold your herrerasaurs for the long-awaited (and belated) revamping of the Royal Ontario Museum, this weekend the ROM opened a new exhibition on the ancient Peruvian Sicán culture. Ancient Peru Unearthed: Golden Treasures of a Lost Civilization explores the lesser known pre-Incan society via artefacts from a recent major dig at the Batán Grande archaeological site.
The items in this show are visually stunning, largely because (as the title implies) most of them are made of dazzling gold. The metal work in the various masks, ornaments, vessels, and jewellery on display is highly impressive, and is what distinguishes the Sicán from their more famed South American counterparts. Because the tomb uncovered at Batán Grande was found largely intact&#8212amazingly unharmed by looters&#8212archaeologists were able to deduce a significant amount about the previously enigmatic Sicán, whose heyday spanned from 800 to 1375, Common Era. The culture remains mysterious: apart from their wacky taste in jewellery (the gold ear spools pictured right are massive), the Sicán held elaborate and frankly disturbing burial rites. Their practice of sacrificing women and children to include in a patriarch’s tomb (gloriously illustrated in the maquette pictured above) seems pretty creepy to us modern types.
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Ancient Peru Unearthed features some fun stuff for the whole family, including a mini archaeological dig site for children (okay, so it’s a bunch of fake bones in a sandbox), as well as all sorts of lectures and events. The ROM has also taken some seriously innovative steps with the exhibition by incorporating tactile displays for the visually impaired and hosting a slew of interactive content on their website. To promote their with-it-ness, they even held a special bloggers’ preview of the show.
Of course, along with these advances come the standard trappings of “dynamic” exhibition design. A loop of flute music that we are told has nothing to do with the ancient culture plays incessantly throughout the space. Huge blow-ups of Sicán artefacts and round, semi-sculptural text panels are scattered throughout, as if these things make learning about the ancient Andean society more fun. Though the central placement of items in vitrines may attempt to lend an open flow to the exhibition, it is doubtful this will disrupt the patented museum-as-conveyor-belt movement of visitors.
The show is in fact particularly cramped, because&#8212like the previous Italian Arts & Design exhibition&#8212it was originally intended to be held in the ROM’s new building. Since the renovations have fallen a year behind schedule, the last couple shows have been regrettably confined to overly small, narrow spaces (also forcing the removal of certain display items). However, the ROM has announced the opening of the Daniel Libeskind-designed crystal addition for June 2, 2007. Whatever you think of the building and the humbly titled “Renaissance ROM” project, the architecture guarantees to be impressive, as do the new and refurbished galleries.
Ancient Peru Unearthed: Golden Treasures of a Lost Civilization runs until August 6, 2007.
Image of Spool Earrings courtesy of the ROM.

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