Q&A with Emma Martin

Nicola Sullivan, 17.06.2015
Interpreting the Mesoamerican civilisation for a UK audience
 Emma Martin, the head of ethnology at National Museums Liverpool, discusses her work on a temporary exhibition, displaying 385 objects from the ancient Maya kingdoms, spanning eastern Mexico to Guatemala, Belize, western Honduras and El Salvador from 1000BC –1542AD.

The content for Mayas: revelation of an endless time (18 June -18 October) at the World Museum in Liverpool, was put together by the Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia in Mexico.

National Museums Liverpool agreed to host the free exhibition to celebrate UK-Mexico relations after being approached by the Mexican embassy earlier this year.

How has the museum prepared for the exhibition?      

We only had a very short period of time to prepare. We actually had to create a whole new gallery space in the World Museum to fit it in. We knew that we were dealing with incredible objects that we are unlikely ever to see in the UK again, and we really wanted to be part of that.

As a national museum outside of London we don’t necessarily always get these kinds of opportunities. It was really important not only for us to host this exhibition but also for our audiences, who will be to given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see this material.

What will be the most impressive objects on display?

It is almost the everyday items that are the most astonishing. There are bricks that were made to build the temples and royal palaces in particularly important cities. The makers of the bricks have inscribed them with images of people relaxing and drinking tea, and some have been moulded into the faces of rulers or important people in the community. When you see those marks you can almost feel the makers’ presence in the objects. That is very powerful.

There are also huge pieces of monumental architecture and a ballgame court marker –a 900 kilo piece of stone finely inscribed and carved with symbols that represent the cycles of death and life. We have lifted it 2.5 metres off the ground on a reinforced pedestal.  

What do you hope audiences will take away from the exhibition?
It is the sense of humanity that can be felt from the pieces. There is a real presence of the people that have worked with the material to bring it to these forms. There is elegance in every single piece that is displayed in the gallery. This manifests itself in the placement of the decoration, the capturing of the squawking of a parrot, the look of startled amazement on the face of a duck that is about to be caught or a person sipping a hot drink, taking in the aroma before it touches the taste buds. 

It is these small moments in life that we can all appreciate and make a connection to. I think people will feel a lot of connections between us and the Maya people, who had the same aspirations, needs and hopes.

What has been the most challenging aspect of this project?

The timeframe has been incredibly tight and despite being a national museum we have a relatively small team. Luckily we are very experienced at putting on temporary exhibitions, but this is the largest temporary exhibition we have ever pulled off and we have done it in the shortest possible space of time.

It has been important for us to keep an eye on the detail. It has been really challenging to make sure we have caught everything and that no stone has been left unturned in terms of the logistics and the translation of text, which has then been reinterpreted for a UK audience. We also had the challenge of preparing for materials and objects that we had not seen.