Olmec civilization comes to life at the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park

Various members of the press take a tour of the Olmec exhibit at the de Young Museum in San Francisco Calif. on Feb. 18. Eric Soracco / staff photographer

Surrounded by relics of their past, the heads of ancient Olmec rulers sit, carved out of stone and preserved in the form of massive sculptures peering out at visitors.

These monumental works of art at the de Young Museum headline what is considered one of the most complete collections of Olmec art to be exhibited outside of Mexico.

“This is such a unique exhibit,” said Consul General of Mexico Carlos Felix. “Even if you were to go to Mexico, you wouldn’t be able to see all these pieces together due to the regions they are in.”

The Olmec civilization once lived in the present day area of Veracruz and Tabasco in Mexico. Widely known for their artwork, they are widely considered the first culture of Mesoamerica.

The exhibition offers a glimpse of the first Mesoamerican civilization prior to the arrival of the Europeans and provides insight into the oldest civilization of the Americas. It showcases a culture that many modern Mexican and Latin Americans descended from.

“For the Latino and Mexican population, they can see that they descended from a proud and great civilization, the oldest of the northern and central Americas,” said Alfonso De Maria, the director of the National Institute of Anthropology and History in Mexico.

However, the exhibit is meant to reach out to more than just the Latin American and Mexican communities.

“I think it’s very important that the Latin American community see where we came from, but it should reach beyond that,” said Museo de Anthropologia de Xalapa Director Sara Ladron de Guevara. “To see the beauty of these exquisite works of art, all together in America is a privilege.”

The artwork displays some of the finest examples of ancient Olmec culture. The collection has a variety of pieces, shedding light on a society in which much of what we know is still a mystery.

Many of the sculptures are in various states of distress, due to a variety of reasons, like being re-sculpted or mutilated for ceremonial purposes, according to Kathleen Berrin, curator at Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

The feature of the exhibit, the colossal heads, are in excellent condition; with one weighing 13,000 pounds, they are truly a sight to behold.

Made entirely out of, and carved with, stone, the gigantic heads were sculpted without the use of any metal tools.

“The contribution of this culture is universal to have knowledge of mathematics, and scientific knowledge needed to create some of these pieces, it’s very important,” Felix said`. “With subsequent cultures having learned these techniques, Olmecs are the mother of all Mesoamerican cultures, these are the equivalent of ancient Egyptian relics.”

Organizing the exhibit was no easy task and took a lot of work both here in the United States and in Mexico.

“Many of the pieces were taken from different museums and even in archeological sites, some even in the jungle, throughout Mexico,” said De Maria.

The exhibit, which will take place from Feb. 19 until May 8, is one of the few opportunities to see the ancient culture in the U.S., having previously been shown in Los Angeles.

“For the normal person seeing this, they won’t be the same afterwards,” De Maria said. “The images, whether you like them or not, will have a lasting image and will remain with them for many years.”

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