‘Peruvian Gold’ exhibit shines light on obscure, pre-Incan cultures

Richard Huff, executive director of Texas’ Irving Arts Center, who is retiring in August after 20 years on the job, had been looking to go out on a high note.

He appears to have hit it with the arrival next weekend of the “Peruvian Gold: Ancient Treasures Unearthed” exhibit, the show’s only stop in the U.S. after a popular five-month run at the National Geographic Museum in Washington.

Huff said he was eager to join forces with the museum to showcase a little-known golden age of Peruvian history when the Sican culture prevailed on the country’s northern coast from about A.D. 750-1375, as well as others. The exhibit includes pre-Incan gold ceremonial masks and headdresses, textiles, pottery and jewelry. Part of Huff’s urgency was the competitive nature of museum exhibitions and Irving’s location between Fort Worth and Dallas.

“I’m trapped between two dragons,” said Huff in an interview. “I have fabulous museums in Fort Worth and fabulous museums in Dallas. The trick is to get there ahead of them and get the contract.”

Buyers and sellers of exhibitions meet at conferences like an annual one by the American Alliance of Museums, where Huff prevailed in snagging “Peruvian Gold” for Irving for $500,000.

The Irving Arts Center is an exhibition hall without a permanent collection, so Huff was especially keen to get a show with so many unique artifacts – 100 in all – such as “El Tocado,” the large gold ceremonial headdress from the middle Sican period ( A.D. 900-1100) that is the centerpiece. It means “headdress” in Spanish and “is one of the great treasures of Peru,” said Kathryn Keane, vice president of National Geographic Exhibitions.

Another big factor for Huff was serving Irving’s Latino community, which accounts for just over 40 percent of the city’s population of nearly 229,000 people.

“When we think of Hispanic art, the image is of folk art,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is establish that there is a fine art tradition equal to Europe’s. Most people don’t know that.”

The National Geographic Museum certainly did and was able to capitalize on its long-standing relationship with Peru and its cultural institutions when it decided to mount an exhibition. National Geographic magazine covered the discovery (officials call it re-discovery) of Machu Picchu, the 15th century Incan city high in the Andes by explorer Hiram Bingham III.

“When people think of Peru, they think of Incas,” said Keane. “There are all these other pre-Columbian cultures.”

The exhibit enables visitors to effectively “walk into the pages of National Geographic” to see Peru’s treasures, where gold permeated the culture, she said, adding that she is pleased that the show is going to North Texas.

“We are not able to be everywhere, but the Dallas-Fort Worth area is extremely important for us,” she said. “There are world-class museums and an incredible appreciation for cultures that you don’t see everywhere.”

The National Geographic does not release figures on attendance or revenue on the exhibition, but its Washington run was extended an additional two weeks. “It was a blockbuster for sure,” Keane said.

The organizers want to continue to highlight the role of archaeology. The National Geographic has awarded over 180 grants for digs in Peru, where it has had a continuing fascination with the history of the region and the stories behind the objects they unearth.

“Archaeology is the key which gives us the understanding of all these objects,” said National Geographic archaeology Fellow Fredrik Hiebert, guest curator of the exhibition.

The Irving Arts Center is poised to explain these artifacts to a new generation and has already lined up 8,000 to 9,000 middle school and high school students to view the exhibit for free as part of its educational programming.

For Huff, “Peruvian Gold” is a fitting capstone to his career of bringing the arts to the public.

“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity,” he said, “and I just couldn’t pass it up.”