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British Museum and Google open Maya collections to a wider, online audience

Tours of Chichen Itza, Palenque and Tikal are digitized

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The British museum used glass negatives from the 19th century to help recreate vestiges of the Maya world. Photo: Google

The final stage of the British Museum’s collaboration with Google Arts and Culture to digitize and disseminate the Ancient Maya collection of Alfred Maudslay was launched Wednesday.

This important collection is made up of photographs, casts and related documents created during early archaeological research at Maya sites in the late 19th century. In cooperation with colleagues from the Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), people can now virtually explore the Maudslay collections and better understand the sites from which they came.

The dedicated project page on Google Arts and Culture showcases special content with a series of online stories presenting the work of the project, the life of Victorian explorer Alfred Maudslay, and the contemporary context of the British Museum’s Maya collections more broadly.

Alongside these, new Virtual Reality Poly Tours are available, which can transport people from their own living rooms to the ancient Maya sites of Palenque and Chichen Itzá in Mexico, using their own mobile phones and Google Cardboard. A special Google Earth Voyager trip lets the public find the photographs of Alfred Maudslay back in their original landscape, virtually flying from one of these city-states to the other.

Alfred Maudslay. Photo: British Museum

The objects that have been digitized were created and collected by Alfred Maudslay, a technological pioneer who used the captured image to engage a global public in Maya cultural heritage. He traveled extensively in Mexico and Central America in the 1880s and 90s, often becoming the first visitor to scientifically document now famous ancient Maya sites like Palenque, Yaxchilán or Tikal using up-to-date recording techniques. The collection consists of over 800 glass plate negatives with 350 of them from Mexico, and in excess of 1,000 pages of archives, including Maudslay’s personal diaries.

All have been digitized to modern standards, revealing details never previously observed. These details include details of stucco decoration on facades of buildings, but also dress, tools, and even facial expressions of Maudslay’s colleagues and local collaborators.

Nearly 200 plaster casts from Mexico have also been 3D scanned, allowing for monuments to be re-assembled in digital form. These will represent an outstanding resource for scholars who will be able to tilt, zoom and manipulate the lighting of these models in order to achieve the best conditions to read the hieroglyphic inscriptions.

Anyone interested in ancient writing and the art and history of Mesoamerica will be able to browse through a fascinating album of ancient monuments. Many of these casts, in Maudslay’s own words “survive the originals,” which have suffered from environmental and human-induced damage in the intervening 130 years.

The project has won the support of the Mexican government but some indigenous descendants of the Maya, now spread across Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala and elsewhere, raised questions over the focus given to heritage when many communities remain marginalized.

“There’s a lot of interest in dead Maya and not living Maya. They reduce us to folklore …when we are stuck in poverty today,” said Pedro Uc, a teacher and farmer in Buctzotz, north-east of Merida, and member of the Múuch’Xíinbal assembly of defenders of the Maya territory.

Atanacio Gómez Encino, a custodian of the archaeological zone in Palenque and himself a Maya, applauded the decision to protect the original steps from further deterioration but lamented the fact that conservation projects at the site were foreign initiatives.

“The Mexican government should provide enough cash for conservation and protection,” he told the Financial times.

British Museum curators have spent time with indigenous Maya communities in the state of Yucatan, explaining the significance of the ancient sites as well as the role played by Maudslay’s Maya collaborators, captured in the many photographs he took of them.

Examples of the Maudslay casts can be seen on display at the British Museum, with the remaining casts forming part of the study collection at Blythe House. As many of the originals today are quite dispersed among sites and museums in Central America and further afield, this collection creates a unique repository of Maya monuments.

The 3D models created from the Maudslay casts can also help the preservation of the original monuments. Through the collaboration with the INAH and help from Google Arts and Culture, the British Museum will be able to deliver a limestone replica of the Maudslay casts of the Hieroglyphic Stairway at Palenque to the site. This replica, created by subtractive engineering, shows not only more details than the original at the site, but by installing it on top of the existing stairway, can help to protect the valuable original.

This project allows the full Maudslay Collection to be available online. The resulting repository of casts, photographs, diaries and drawings is of global significance for the study of the Ancient Maya. Thanks to this partnership and the new technological advancements it provides, more people than ever before will have the opportunity to engage with the landscapes and monuments of this fascinating culture.

Dr. Jago Cooper, Curator of the Americas and Head of Americas Section Africa, Oceania and Americas, said: “This project is all about the technology of imagination. Anyone in the world can now take an extraordinary journey from the storerooms of the British Museum to the extraordinary cities of the Ancient Maya world. This is a journey of understanding built on the latest technology of our time”

Sources: British Museum, Financial Times

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