In 2006, the Johnson Museum received a spectacular gift of pre-Columbian ceramics, stone carvings, tools, and gold adornments through the generosity of Thomas Carroll, PhD 1951. The Carroll collection spans nearly five thousand years of artistic tradition, with objects from forty different cultures found in ancient Ecuador, Peru, Colombia, Mexico, and Central America. The greatest concentration of objects comes from Ecuador, and the exhibition therefore highlights these fascinating and less-exhibited cultures, underlining the Museum’s newly enhanced status as a destination for their appreciation and study.
This exhibition takes a historical approach, beginning with a series of tiny Valdivia fertility figures from coastal Ecuador dating back to 3000 BC—the oldest figural sculptures in South America. Along the way, visitors will encounter works like a seated Capulí figure from the Ecuadorian highlands, shown chewing coca leaves, a practice still enjoyed today. A large, impressive Maya serving bowl from Guatemala was used at a noble banquet for serving tamales; the partially effaced decoration in its bottom is proof of its use in such gatherings. An intimidating Manteño chieftain from a later period in Ecuador, seated on an honorific stool, introduces us to a culture that operated a vast fleet of trading rafts which plied the oceans south to Peru and north to Mexico.
In a few cases, objects are grouped to highlight commonalities in form, function, and materials across cultures and times that resonate with today’s viewing public just as they did with their makers. Such groups include animal-themed art, musical instruments, and the working of gold. Another common theme is the fascination with the jaguar—the largest land predator in the Ancient Americas—feared and worshiped. The jaguar’s snarling visage, or some abstraction of it, adorns more than a dozen different objects in jadeite, gold, and ceramic; most impressive of these perhaps is the magnificent jaguar effigy vessel of a type still being produced on Costa Rica’s Nicoya peninsula around the time of Columbus.
We hope you will enjoy the richness and variety presented by this important collection. We owe Dr. Carroll a great debt of gratitude indeed for providing Cornell with a lasting legacy—a new world—upon which we will continue to build.
Andrew C. Weislogel
Assistant Curator / Master Teacher