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No, the ancient Maya did not predict that the world will end in December 2012. Yes, the Penn Museum is taking advantage of the popular fascination with that distinctly North American misinterpretation of the Maya calendar to mount a wide-ranging exhibit examining Maya notions of time and much more about this rich, still-thriving culture.  

BY BEEBE BAHRAMI


Crossing the Mesoamerican gallery on my way to interview the key players in the Penn Museum’s new exhibition on the ancient and modern Maya—MAYA 2012 Lords of Time, which runs through January 13, 2013 (assuming our world is still around then)—I see a dignified elderly docent herding a flock of three-dozen or so restless, distracted fourth graders visiting the museum on a field trip. With theatrical aplomb, the docent changes his voice so that it’s just loud enough to rise over the din of chatting and texting.

“What is going to happen when the big cycle of the Maya calendar ends in December 2012?” he says, raising one eyebrow and drawing out his words, placing particular emphasis on ends.

A hush falls over the school group. No one looks at their phones, all eyes on the prophet of the moment. A few other gallery visitors move closer. The floor perhaps trembles a little beneath our feet.

The eyebrow relaxes.

“Nothing.” He smiles innocently, his voice normal again. “A whole new long cycle will begin.”

The kids look bummed. The other visitors move on. No cataclysm? No great cosmic shift of consciousness? No John Cusack outracing the apocalypse in a battered RV? What gives?

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Illustration by Rich Lillash

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