SAW J-A 2016 - CityScene Photo - Photo Courtesy Witte Museum - Photo by Kurtis Kronk

When was the last time you visited the Witte Museum?

If it has been more than a couple of years, you are in for a big surprise. The venerable San Antonio institution has been undergoing a $100 million transformation that will ultimately more than double its space and substantially extend its footprint along Broadway. By the time the construction wraps up, the entire complex will look so different that it will truly be the New Witte, as the museum officials call it.
 
But don’t wait until the last stone is put into place. Museums are great places to visit in the summer, and the Witte has brought to town an exciting traveling exhibition that explores the world of the ancient Maya, who have intrigued scholars and the public since the middle of the 19th century. That’s when the ruins of their cities were first discovered in the jungles of Central America. Thanks to a new understanding of Mayan hieroglyphs, knowledge about their way of life has taken a leap forward in recent decades.
 
Called Maya: Hidden Worlds Revealed, the exhibition is divided into a number of sections that tell different aspects of the Maya story, from Master Builders and Watching the Skies to Death and Rebirth, and Making a Living. There are more than 200 authentic artifacts; large sculptural replicas of architectural elements, such as a life-size frieze from a Belize pyramid and two imposing carved pillars called stelae; videos of archeologists, ethnographers and other scholars talking about their work; and interactive stations that are both educational and fun. You could try your hand at building the typical Maya arch, see what your name looks like written Maya style or use some tools to help you understand how ancient “dentists” drilled holes in their patients’ teeth to insert precious stones.
 
Don’t rush through the rooms. Read the various descriptions and listen to the recorded explanations. You could also get some guidance from Ixchel, the goddess of fertility and motherhood, who graciously offers her help. Before exiting, watch contemporary Maya talk about rediscovering their heritage.
 
It’s all quite absorbing. Numerous programs and events are scheduled in conjunction with the exhibit, which runs through Sept.5. (www.wittemuseum.org).
 
SAW J-A 2016 - CityScene - Maya - Photo courtesy Witte Museum - Photo by Kurtis Kronk
Just down the street from the Witte, the San Antonio Museum of Art also has a wonderful treat for us this summer. The opulent exhibit Highest Heaven: Spanish and Portuguese Colonial Art from the Collection of Roberta and Richard Huber is a unique opportunity to see colonial art, furniture, silver and ivories from South American countries such as Brazil, Peru and Bolivia. Inspired and influenced by European Christian art, the South American artists nevertheless put their own stamp on the images of saints and the holy family in an endearing and often startling way. Thus, one painting portrays the Virgin Mary washing Jesus’ diapers while Joseph holds baby Jesus and little angels play nearby. So far, I have only seen the catalog, but I feel comfortable saying: Don’t miss this one! (www.samueum.org; see ArtBeat in this issue).
 
For a very different experience, head to the McNay, where a more recent past is on display in Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861-2008. For New Yorkers, the very mention of Coney Island evokes memories of summer fun. One person was even nostalgic for the smell of the amusement parks. You’ll have to imagine the smell while visiting the McNay galleries, but the show has a lot to see — more than 140 objects, including art and memorabilia. Not being an amusement park aficionado, I found the art far more interesting. Featured artists include William Merritt Chase, Joseph Stella, Diane Arbus, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Reginald Marsh, Red Grooms and others. (www.mcnayart.org).
 
Our museums are cool, in every sense of the word.

BY JASMINA WELLINGHOFF