Altos de Chavon

The Altos de Chavón Regional Museum of Archaeology Is Reborn

This post is also available in: Spanish

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The Altos de Chavón Regional Museum of Archaeology has always had the admirable mission of bringing Hispaniola’s pre-European history, culture, and art to a wide audience. Pupils visiting the Museum from public and private schools in La Romana and throughout the region have been wide-eyed at their first introduction to the rich ancestral heritage of the Dominican Republic. And tourists, amateur archaeologists, and the Dominican public in large numbers have enjoyed this gem of a museum close by Casa de Campo, nestled behind the Church of St. Stanislaus, with the rolling green of golf courses and the winding Chavón River in the background and misty mountains on the distant horizon to the north.

But over the 20 years or so since it first opened, the Museum fell prey to the insistent attack of time and of uninvited visitors such as boring insects and mold. Clearly, its glory had faded.

The Museum Gets Revamped
To the rescue came Wid Chapman, former chair of Interior Design at New York’s Parsons The New School for Design. (The Altos de Chavón School of Design has been an affiliate of Parsons since 1983 and this year celebrated its 25th graduating class.) Wid redesigned the Museum and even helped it get a donation of linen to line the display cases from Sherri Donghia, who directed the Donghia textile and decorating firm, purveyor of some of the world’s highest-quality fabric. So over the last few years the Museum has been having, as we say in Casa de Campo, “some work done.”

But more than having a superficial facelift, the Museum has been restructured. It’s a different place now: the colors, the textures, the reconfigured lighting, the written information, and the innovative placement of objects have rendered the Museum more dramatic, educational, and far more interesting.

All-New Illustrations Animate the Collection
The most obvious and visually exciting contribution to the “new” Museum was made by a 1995 graduate of the School of Design, Boris De los Santos. Hailing from Santo Domingo, Boris went on to continue his studies at Parsons, having won the coveted Ruth Vanterpool scholarship. He now earns his living as a freelance illustrator and graphic designer in New York City.

The banners in front of the Museum herald Boris’s illustrations, and you see them the moment you enter. The artist’s love of his subject matter is at once apparent. His drawing skill is matched, perhaps even exceeded, by his fascination with the pre-Columbian world of Hispaniola. In these carefully done studies the tranquility of island life is palpable, as indigenous people participate in the rigors, celebrations, and diversions of Taino life before their encounter with the Europeans. Joyfully the Indians hunt, make clay objects, prepare cassava bread, and practice their sacred religious rituals. In these depictions they are real people, each with distinct features, each with a personality, a character that seems accurate, and a role in society. The artist’s intellect is the hallmark of the work and, along with his enormous skill and craftsmanship in rendering the scenes, makes these illustrations unforgettable.

The Altos de Chavón Regional Museum of Archaeology is visited annually by thousands of tourists from a wide spectrum of linguistic groups. Boris’s drawings of the Tainos’ daily life are totally at the service of information transfer. Without ego, they have only the intent to educate and enlighten, and for visitors who don’t know Spanish or English, they can make reading the text unnecessary. With startling precision they explain visually what the text covers, ensuring the success of the Museum’s goal to educate a diverse, international public. A constant source of pride, the illustrations were featured in a special exhibition at Casa de Chavón in Santo Domingo in April [2009].

More New Developments
In addition to the physical innovations at the Museum, there are new programs. The Discovery Room introduces children to the basic concepts of archaeological field and lab work and lets them experience the adventure of being an archaeologist. The Museum in a Box is a new, itinerant exhibition that takes the Museum’s collection to remote parts of the country. A recently completed DVD, soon to be on view at the Museum, shows how the treasures of the Tainos have been found. The DVD is part of an expanding series of educational materials called “Looking at Ourselves in the Mirror of Time.” The series also includes a guide and a workshop for teachers designed to help them maximize the value of their museum visit by making it an extension of the classroom.

The Museum reopened to the public without fanfare in November 2008. No doubt many of us consider the Museum a place we already know. Well, I think we need to get reacquainted. My strong recommendation is that you take yourself, your family, and your guests to this extraordinary museum. It many ways it has no peer in the country. I know you will find it fascinating, stimulating, and above all truly informative

Steven Kaplan

Article and photos contributed by
Stephen D. Kaplan, Rector,
Escuela de Diseño Altos de Chavon




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