Exploring with Ellie: Finding Peru at the National Museum of the American Indian
During my summer as an intern at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage in Washington, D.C., I want to soak in as much of the city as possible. As the 2015 Folklife Festival’s Perú: Pachamama program emerges on the National Mall, I’m anxious to see what the other surrounding museums have to offer.
With my Smithsonian I.D. badge in hand and the Peru program on my mind, I started with a visit to the National Museum of the American Indian. I was excited to see both Quechua and Aymara traditions represented in the museum’s current exhibits!
Upon entering the museum and crossing the first-floor rotunda, I immediately saw something I recognized: a raft woven of totora reeds! This particular boat was crafted by Aymara “Community Curators”—museum contributors who actively sustain Native traditions. Even though it represents a different community, the museum’s boat bears a close resemblance to the caballitos de totora that fishermen from Huanchaco will bring to the Festival.
Our Universes Exhibit
Next, I headed upstairs to see Our Universes. This exhibit explores the ancestral spiritual teachings of several Native communities. The exhibit is organized around the solar calendar, and the high, curving walls of its tunnel-like entrance are covered in a twinkling star map. The tunnel then splits off into curved “rooms,” each chronicling the “Universe” of one Native community.
The Quechua room features artifacts illustrating the importance of duality in Quechua life. Everything can be categorized as either paña (male) or lloq’e (female), which work together to maintain balance in the world. Because of this focus on the unity of two halves, the concept of chawpi (the center or union) often plays an important role in ceremonies and sacred sites. The rooms come to life with bright colors and textures of ceremonial clothing and accompanying videos of ritual dances.
The Quechua concept of time resonated with me as well. In Quechua tradition, time is only divided between the past and the present. The future is unknown and therefore not represented in the traditional definition of time. The focus is instead on living in the present without worrying about what cannot be controlled.
Next time you’re in the D.C. area, stop by the National Museum of the American Indian to visit the Our Universes exhibit and learn about Quechua cosmology. Don’t forget to grab a snack at the Mitsitam Café. I recommend the guava tapioca pudding—yum!
Also Check Out: Infinity of Nations Exhibit
You’ll have to visit NMAI’s New York location to see Infinity of Nations in person. Luckily, the exhibit also has an extensive interactive website. Explore the “Andes” and “Amazon” tabs to see art from different regions of Peru. Some of my favorites are an intricately carved gourd from Ayacucho and a Quechua staff from Cusco.
On June 26, the National Museum of the American Indian in D.C. will open their new exhibition, The Great Inka Road: Engineering an Empire, where visitors can learn even more about Peruvian traditional heritage.
Georgia “Ellie” Dassler is a media intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage—and she’s very excited about it! She is also a student at the College of William & Mary where she studies anthropology and teaching English to speakers of other languages.