The American Museum of Natural History, by Barbara Steinberg

The American Museum of Natural History, by Barbara Steinberg


I saw guards mechanically repeat, “Tickets, only. Go around the corner,” on

magnificent steps with statues of Teddy Roosevelt,

Swerving, sweaty lines, a Tower of Babel sound wall, and black ropes framed my life for

the next hour

Then — the ticket, elephants, and stuffed parrots from people who thought manicured death educates.


On the second floor I met ceramic idols whose makers

never knew Spain

never knew their world had disappeared

never knew the hysteria of monotheism

They did not hallucinate death stars, even though their art was buried with the dead.

Starving for wonder, we could only glance at them through the nano-second attention span of our world, understanding nothing, as they stared back at us with aplomb —

A panoply of curiosity

Aware of their purpose and purposefully aware,

I felt an inquisitive,





Contemplative relationship between

Sun-time and on-time

Star watchers and astronauts


Object 1: Copper-silver alloy funerary mask originally attached to a mummy head. Surface corrosion showing fabric impressions suggest that the mask was originally covered in cloth, with only the gold eyes showing. Chimu-Lambayeque Culture, Peru A.D. 1100 – 1400.

Objects 2 & 3: From 1438 to 1532, Tawantinsuyu (the Inca Empire) peacefully assimilated many Andean mountain civilizations. One of them was the Ichma from the Lurín Valley, whose god was Pacha Kamaq, Creator of the World. The Ichma built a Temple of the Sun in the city of Pachacamac to honor him.

The Tawantinsuyu expanded the city, building a larger, more dominant sun temple. Pedro Cieza de León wrote in his Crónicas del Perú (1530), “And when the (Inca) temple to the Sun had been built, they filled it with riches and put many virgins in it.”

One of the Inca’s most distinct designs was the urpu, or storage jar, which had round chambers, handles, tall necks, flared rims, and pointed bases. The pointed base allowed large urpus to be set in the earth for stability. Ropes were pulled through the handles, so people could carry them on their backs. In Inca culture, urpus were decorated with polychrome geometric slip designs in black and red on a cream-colored background, as you can see from the first example, which resides at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

However, graves around the Inca Temple of the Sun contain ceramics with Pacha Kamaq painted on them, and in Ichma style, the pointed base is not a separate part attached to the bottom, but part of a one-piece form.

The second example, a storage vase from the American Museum of Natural History, shows how ideas were combined when the Inca assimilated Ichma culture.

Object 4: This vessel is modeled on the form of a killer whale. Please note the powerful jaws and large eye. Early Nasca, Peru (75 BC to 175 AD). Nasca religion didn’t have deities, but spirits with supernatural power. These ceramic figures symbolized mythical beings, anthropomorphic composites that represented the most powerful forces of the air, earth, and water. The Mythical Killer Whale, Horrible Bird, and Serpentine Creature are just three, and they were associated with trophy heads. The Nasca decapitated their victims in battle. In official rituals, shamans impersonated mythical beings, using trophy heads as symbols of death, regeneration, and fertility.

Object 5: Mask with painted cotton cloth, wool turban with snake design and fox headdress ornament from the top of a cloth-wrapped mummy. The ornament is made from a fox muzzle, covered with feathers from the blue-and-yellow macaw and other tropical birds and attached to cotton cloth. The green and orange feathers represent eyes and whiskers. Cerro Uhle, Ica Valley, Peru.

Object 6: Terracotta incense burner representing the Aztec god of rain, Tlaloc. Made in Colima in the Northwest Valley of Mexico (100 BC – 250 AD), the burner has back-to-back figures. Their heads merge to become the container that burns incense. The handle also serves as the figures’ imaginative headdresses, its tall arch providing support for serpents attached at the front.

Objects 7 & 8: The face of this large, spherical sculpture is that of the Maize God Homshuk. Mesoamerican civilizations such as the Olmec usually carved the faces of maize gods atop turtle shells. However in this piece, two large glyphlike turtles with corn on their shells grace the top of the stone, while Homshuk protrudes from one side. The artist might have chosen a round stone because Homshuk was born from an egg. The incised designs have been emphasized with white ink.

Object 9: Purépecha contemplative female sculpture. The Purépecha people are also known as Tarascan, The female figure comes from the Lake Pátzcuaro region, seat of the Tarascan Empire which dominated the approximate area of Michoacan in Post-Classic times (900-1500 AD). Well-organized and aggressive, they built an empire similar to the Aztecs with large stone temple structures, and worked metal and precious stones with great skill. Their sculpture is notable for squared geometric forms.

Photographs from the AMNH by Barbara Steinberg

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