Peruvian ‘lost city’

Ryan Wenzel

After Spanish conquistadors subjugated the Incas in 1532, Machu Picchu — a vacation site frequented by the Inca elite — fell into disrepair and was lost from memory. Even after Yale professor Hiram Bingham stumbled across the city in 1911, few were willing to scale the steep Andes Mountains to visit the ruins.

But more than 90 years after its "rediscovery," Machu Picchu’s secrets finally are accessible to the public, thanks to a new exhibit at the Field Museum of Natural History. "Machu Picchu: Unveiling the Mystery of the Incas," a touring exhibit that opened last Wednesday, gives visitors the opportunity to explore all facets of life at the ancient lost city.

"The site deserves descriptive superlatives," said Jonathan Haas, anthropology curator at the Field Museum. "It’s spectacular. This is the first exhibition on Machu Picchu ever that really gives people the experience of what it’s like to be there."

Organized by the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History and sponsored by SAP, "Machu Picchu: Unveiling the Mystery of the Incas" is the largest exhibition of Inca artifacts ever assembled in the United States. Before coming to Chicago, the exhibit appeared at museums in New York, Los Angeles, Denver, Houston and Tulsa, Okla.

Hilary Hansen, a project manager at the Field Museum, said the museum is very excited to be hosting the exhibit. Machu Picchu and the Incas, she said, are subjects of intrigue to many people. "It’s such an interesting topic," she said. "Everybody remembers something about the Inca from elementary school."

Even though the exhibit came to the Field fully curated, Hansen said a considerable amount of work was required to integrate it into their building. A team of designers, graphic artists, producers and curators began meeting about six months ago to discuss presentation, but contracts and initial planning began almost two years ago.

The result of their extensive planning is an exhibit that combines traditional glass case displays with engaging multimedia presentations. "There are so many great elements," Hansen said. "Not just the artifacts, but the architectual reconstructions and the interactives, as well."

The exhibit begins with a short video detailing the history and function of Machu Picchu, after which visitors are free to explore the mysterious city for themselves. In rooms decorated with stunning panoramic photographs of the ruins, visitors can examine more than 400 artifacts, peak inside a typical Inca dwelling, observe interactions between life-like royal figures and tour the five-square-mile complex in a computer walkthrough program that might remind gamers of Myst — all while traversing the exhibit on a replica of an Inca road.

But Incan culture and history aren’t the only subjects highlighted by "Machu Picchu" — science also plays a large role in the exhibit. A bone analysis display draws conclusions about the health problems the Inca faced, and another area explores the common Incan practice of deforming infant skulls, which they believed made their race more physically attractive.

Any museum would be happy to host such an impressive exhibit, but Hansen said "Machu Picchu" has special significance to researchers at the Field. "We have dozens of scientists working in Peru," Hansen said. "We don’t have any scientists who specialize in Machu Picchu, but several of our researchers study Peruvian culture. This is a topic that’s near and dear to a lot of our scientists."


Admission to the exhibit, which includes general museum admission, is $17 for adults, $14 for seniors and students with ID and $8 for children. The museum advises that visitors to the exhibit purchase tickets in advance by visiting or calling (866) 343-5303.4


Weinberg sophomore Ryan Wenzel is the PLAY film editor. He can be reached at [email protected]