Pitzer Collection of Mayan Textiles

The textiles woven by Mayan women have long been appreciated for their beauty and sophistication. Using just a simple backstrap loom (also known as a stick loom), highland Mayan women create intricately brocaded blouses for themselves and clothing for their families. In the Yucatan and areas with a more temperate climate, women take advantage of the colorful array of embroidery thread available to embellish their families' lightweight cotton clothing. Thanks to women's skill, creativity and ingenuity, textiles produced by the Mayan people are attractive and utilitarian. But while the textiles of the Mayan people can be appreciated solely for their aesthetic value, this is an inherently limited interpretation. Mayan textiles are much more than pretty pieces of fabric. The clothing worn by Mayan people on a daily basis communicates a lot of information about the wearer, including his or her social status in the community, his or her ethnic group, and the area in which he or she lives.

This exhibit of the Sam Noble Museum's collection of Mayan textiles will point out some of the various messages that Mayan clothing communicates. This collection was assembled over many years, in large part by John C. Pitzer, and represents many of the diverse Mayan communities in Mexico and Guatemala.

John C. Pitzer

PitzerJohn C. Pitzer almost singlehandedly built the Sam Noble Museum’s Mayan textile collection. What began as a sporadic and informal relationship between Pitzer and the museum developed into the type of partnership of which most museums dream.

Pitzer started donating Mayan textiles to the museum in the 1980s. Though he had no formal training in textile arts, he knew what he liked and had an eye for quality. Pitzer continued donating textiles to the museum in the ensuing years.

Most important to Pitzer was developing a collection of Mayan textiles that was representative of all the Mayan areas and of all the clothing styles in these areas. Thus, the collection includes clothing from the highlands and the lowlands, from women and men, from adults and children, from everyday clothing and outfits worn on special occasions.

Even a brief conversation with Pitzer conveyed his excitement about Mayan textiles. And this excitement was extremely contagious. Through his efforts, Pitzer recruited other donors, raised funds to support the development of the Mayan textile collection, and established strong relationships with museums and textile vendors in Mexico and Guatemala. He envisioned that the museum’s Mayan textile collection would become one of the premier collections in the world. Thanks to his efforts, this is now a reality. As it stands, the Mayan textile collection is the largest single collection in the museum’s division of ethnology.

This web site shows only a fraction of the collection that John Pitzer assembled, but in its present web-based format, the museum is able to display more of the textiles and present more detailed information than could be provided in a traditional gallery exhibit. Also, this format will allow people all over the world to view and appreciate the Pitzer collection. Pitzer was incredibly excited about the exhibition of these textiles, as well as the possibilities of a digital exhibit. Unfortunately, Pitzer passed away shortly before seeing this exhibit become a reality. He was traveling in Mexico and Guatemala at the time, adding to the museum’s growing collection of Mayan textiles.

This website was created by Rhonda S. Fair, during her time as a graduate research assistant in the museum’s division of ethnology, under the supervision of Jason Jackson, Ph.D., curator for ethnology. The web site was created using Macromedia Dreamweaver 4 for Macintosh. Photographs of the entire Pitzer collection of Mayan textiles, some of which are featured in this exhibit, were taken by Fair as part of this project. These photographs were edited with Adobe Photoshop 5.0 LE for Macintosh. Fair’s position was funded by the museum. The invaluable service of cataloging and describing each of the textiles donated by Pitzer was provided by Yoana Walschap. Trained in the analysis of textiles, Walschap meticulously analyzed each item as it was donated. Her position was funded through donations by Pitzer and his associates.