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Explore the Maya world with the British Museum

October 15th, 2019

At first glance, the British Museum and Google may not seem like natural partners. One is a 266-year-old institution venerated as the first national public museum in the world. The other is a 21-year-old former startup and now the world’s largest digital company.

But if you take a closer look, you’ll see some strong ties. The British Museum was created to host the knowledge of the world in objects and to unlock their stories. Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. So when we discovered an opportunity to work together with Google Arts & Culture, it turned out to be a natural fit.

Exploring the Maya World is a bold project to bring a rarely seen collection out of the British Museum repository and into the world. By harnessing the power of new technology to capture and communicate stories about the collections, the project helps bring important stories to a global audience.

This project has fully digitized the remarkable collection of ancient Maya art and architecture gathered by Alfred Maudslay in the late 19th century. Maudslay used the latest technology of his time to record the stories of ancient Maya cities in Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras. He developed the first dry glass plate photographs of iconic sites like Palenque, Chichen Itza and Tikal, spending years living and working throughout the region. He also created more than 400 large plaster cast replicas of building facades and monuments, which have been stored in the British Museum for more than 100 years.

This collection represents some of the best-preserved records of ancient Maya writing. By working closely with our colleagues in Mexico and Guatemala, we’ve made this entire collection available online for anyone to enjoy and research themselves. The incredible stories that have emerged during this project have also been put online for people to enjoy in Spanish, Portuguese and English anywhere in the world.

Explore the Maya world with the British Museum
Discover how new 3D scans of the British Museum’s plaster cast collection have helped decode and preserve an ancient sculpted stairway in Palenque, Mexico.
Explore the Maya world with the British Museum
The ancient Maya ballgame, known as pits, has its roots in their creation myth. Learn how this was much more than just a game.
Explore the Maya world with the British Museum
Meet the 19th-century female explorers who helped bring the story of the ancient Maya to the world.
Explore the Maya world with the British Museum
Zoom in to see a plaster cast of an original sculpture from the city of Chichen Itza, one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.
Explore the Maya world with the British Museum
“We are still here.” Maya anthropologist Dr. Genner Llanes-Ortiz traces the history of his ancestors to the modern era, from festivals to hip-hop.
Explore the Maya world with the British Museum
This 19th-century photograph shows Palenque’s Stairway to Heaven and archeologist Alfred Maudslay’s makeshift camp at The Great Palace.
Explore the Maya world with the British Museum
Explore how the ancient Maya viewed death and the concept of rebirth in the story of Four Funerals and a Wedding.

The power of this project has been its exceptionally collaborative approach: We’ve brought together curators, indigenous communities, scholars and technology specialists across Mexico, Guatemala, the U.K., Denmark, France, and the U.S. Everyone has been united by a common mission to communicate the true value of conserving shared cultural heritage. By working together, I think we’ve achieved that goal. Exploring the Maya World brings to life the energy and dynamism of culture in a way that can be hard to generate within a physical environment. The voices in this project are vibrant and full of color. They tell their own stories and the stories of those that have lived before.

The British Museum already enjoys welcoming more than 6 million visitors to our galleries every year. But we have the potential to reach millions more by bringing our museum to the world virtually. Only a few years ago it would have seemed unrealistic to create a catalog of 3D objects viewable from anywhere in the world, let alone walk around ancient Maya cities while sitting in your living room. These journeys of discovery are critical to help engage all communities with the value and wonder of cultural heritage.

I believe that these are exactly the kinds of research projects that international museums need to take on. Only by taking risks and pushing the boundaries of what is possible can we begin to expand the reach and role of the 21st-century global museum. This project has inspired me to think differently about the future, and I am excited to see where this technology of imagination will take us next.

You can discover these stories by visiting Exploring the Maya World.