Massive Montreal Exhibition Tracks 3,000 Years of Peruvian Cultural History

Massive Montreal Exhibition Tracks 3,000 Years of Peruvian Cultural History
A Mochican Forehead Ornament with Feline Head and Octopus Tentacles Ending in Catfish Heads (100 – 800 A.D.)
(Photo: Daniel Giannoni )

MONTREAL — The re-discovery of Manchu Picchu in 1911 did more than just expose the ruins of this ancient royal estate, floating, seemingly, on a lonely, cloudy mountain peak. It simultaneously created a national symbol that is today associated the world over with both Peru and the splendor of Andean indigenous civilizations.

No surprise then that the sumptuous, broad-ranging exhibition “Peru: Kingdoms of the Sun and the Moon,” organized by and on view at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, starts with a panoramic picture of the great Inca ruins. Hiram Bingham took this picture, around 1911, when he and his team of Yale archaeologists stumbled across the site. He followed up the visit with excavations between 1912 and 1915, quietly hauling off much treasure.


Bingham’s vintage print is just one of over 370 objects in this exhibition on loan from 50 or so collections in Peru, and elsewhere. It is a big, beautiful show, wildly expansive in vision, detailed in investigation (witness the 384-page catalog with gold trimmed pages), a Wunderkammer of artifacts, vintage photographs, religious iconography, gold and silver ornaments, textiles, and, to cap it off, a solid display of colonial era paintings, including several rare, perfectly lovely representations of angels. 

Fortunately, museum visitors with an interest in ancient civilizations won’t have to go to Montreal to see this show, which will be touring to Seattle this October and hopefully to other United States venues in the following year. There is even some hope that it will tour back to Peru, specifically a space in Lima. But there are some advantages to seeing it here, chiefly the generous, inviting installation which allows objects to breathe yet at the same time connects them in a way that tells a compelling, integrated story.

In the end, that is what you want in a museum show, right, or at least I do: to tell me a good story. The story is not too difficult to follow: the show traces the evolution of Peruvian cultural identity over the past 3,000 years. Does it lack focus, a little, does it jump about in time and in medium, absolutely, but I can forgive all of these things because the narrative is so compelling. Then there’s that other crucial element.

Outstanding objects are also what you want in a museum show besides a compelling story. Luckily there are dozens of them here, such as a Mochica forehead ornament with feline head and octopus tentacles ending in tiny catfish heads made of gold and shells, on loan from the Museo de la Nacion in Lima. Repatriated in 2006, it is being exhibited here for the first time since its return to Peru. It is spectacular, of course, gleaming under bright spotlights. Seeing this piece alone is probably worth the price of admission.

Further highlights include important objects in gold, silver and turquoise from the Royal Tombs of Sipan, unearthed in 1987 and considered to be the most significant archaeological find in Peru since the rediscovery of Machu Picchu: I can remember reading about these excavations in the pages of National Geographic. One terrific piece to look out for is the gold and turquoise ear disc depicting a warrior.

Most of the great archaeological objects are in the first few rooms, which are devoted in part to illustrating ways in which archaeology helped rewrite the national history, beginning with the discovery of Machu Picchu. In addition to the great Inca Empire, Peru was home to many, earlier, equally splendid civilizations such as the Mochica, Lambayeque and Chimu to the north and the Paracas and Nazca to the south.

Beyond outstanding individual objects, one of the things I really like about this show is the attention paid to representations of myths, rituals and symbols, in particular  to the way they are recycled and transformed through history. The “Black Christ,” a staple of colonial religious iconography, is for instance a hybrid of Catholic imagery of the Crucifixion of Christ and the “Lord of Earthquakes,” an Andean animistic deity.

Not everyone will be admiring of the modern pictures here, though, for Peruvians like the exhibition curator, Victor Pimentel, Curator of Pre-Columbian Art at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, they elicit a tremendous pride. For him they represent a “revalorization” of once maligned indigenous symbols in service of a new, shared national identity. A culture looking back, while looking forward, is the message that shines brightly through this marvelously enlightening show.

“Peru: Kingdoms of the Sun and the Moon” is at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Montreal, through  June 16th.

To see works from the exhibition, click on the slideshow.