- The Washington Times - Friday, January 13, 2006

The famous admonishment “All that glitters is not gold” is so popular that the saying has become a favored platitude.

The National Museum of Natural History’s “Spirit of Ancient Colombian Gold,” however, definitely belies this by celebrating the sun — indigenous Colombians’ most important symbol — in gold. They used the shimmering metal to show the sun as the all-powerful procreator and human-animal mutator.

Consider, also, the funerary, stylized royal facial masks they wore to help people through the afterworld. There are four impressive gleaming ones that show stylistic — and perhaps symbolic — changes. Unfortunately, the curators dispersed them through what is largely a disorganized show, instead of placing them together for more in-depth viewing.

Gold also had significant transformative powers, especially when animals of gold such as snakes, birds and felines became flying shamans who served as links between human and spirit worlds. Shamans’ teachers taught them how to “fly” in the cosmos through meditation, ingesting hallucinogens, fasting and using ritual gold objects.

Another use for gold was decorative with breastplates, nose rings, animals, necklaces and earrings for what the exhibit brochure describes as “second skins.” For their earthly stay, shamans transformed themselves into powerful predator jaguars — a Mesoamerican, as well as Colombian, ruler and status symbol.

These early Colombians, in an area wedged between Peru, Ecuador, the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea, Panama, Venezuela and Brazil, treasured gold for its easy workability, range of brilliant yellows, reflective properties and symbolic possibilities. The ancient Colombians, as seen in this show from Bogota’s Museo del Oro (Museum of Gold), hammered and embossed simply worked human and animal figures and anthropomorphic composites of both.

Allied to Colombia’s present culture are foods for hallucinatory events — illustrated with badly shot “contextual” photographs — accompanied by archival pictures of drugged shamans dancing.

With the country’s reputation for unbridled drug use there and for export, curators could have played this down. The artistry of the gold “snuff trays” for crumbled yopo and yaje leaves is mediocre.

The exhibit begins optimistically with typical objects such as pectorals, funerary masks, a breastplate, hallucinogenic lime flasks and a nose ring attractively displayed in wall cases. It begins with objects that connect Colombians to their gods, but ends with the gods killing and cannibalizing them — then helping them to a rebirth.

At entry, visitors first see a “Stylized Feline Nose Adornment” (Malagana, 200 B.C.-A.D. 200, 11-by-10-inches), a simply silhouetted and starkly decorated nose decoration. The exhibit label tells viewers: “When wearing this large nose ring, a shaman is transformed into a jaguar.”

More appropriate would have been the easily missed gold “Funerary Mask” at the right. It’s the exhibit’s star and should have been featured. I wondered, “Was there an exhibit designer for the show?”

I wondered even more, and questioned the exhibit’s come-on name, as I journeyed through the disorganized pieces — 280 made from various materials including gold, stone, shell and wood. Moreover, the curators chose a dehumanized two-story space, lit with blinding spots, rectilinearly displayed vitrines, particularly hard stone floors and no benches for more leisurely viewing.

There’s no video, and music pours in from another display.

Also, with the museum’s poor signage, I had to ask for directions — the exhibit’s next to the Imax theater — to where there reads “Special Exhibition.” There are excellent exhibit brochures, but they’re hidden away in the badly lit entry.

Curators chose simply styled and worked men, women and animals, but “Multiple Transformations” displays more intricately designed figures such as the smallish, exquisite “Bat-Man Pectoral” (Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta Region, Tairona Period, A.D. 600-1600).

These pieces frightened. Chiefs’ metamorphoses into man-bats or man-vampires — “the bird of the night and of the underworld” — elicited the respect they wanted.

The show disappoints, and should be fixed up before traveling to Houston. Colombians’ working of gold isn’t as exciting as “Gold: The Asian Touch,” the Arthur M. Sackler’s varied and geographically far-flung exhibit. The Sackler presented its superb works in an appropriately lighted, subdued, plum-hued setting with explanatory texts that worked.

Washingtonians should also visit Dumbarton Oaks’ “Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art,” housed in a stunning Philip Johnson-designed circular gallery, when it reopens in 2007.

WHAT: “The Spirit of Ancient Colombian Gold”

WHERE: Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, 10th Street and Constitution Avenue NW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily, through April 9


PHONE: 202/633-1000

ONLINE: www.mnh.si.edu

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