An Ixchel Museum Educational Program
What satisfaction could be greater than the joy of sharing the completion of one’s first weaving? None! This pleasure is even greater when the weaver is a young boy or girl, facing for the first time the challenge of knowing when to tighten, loosen or stop; when to breathe deeply and disentangle some threads on the verge of becoming a knot. Through maturity and experience, expert weavers handle these situations easily enough, not only in weaving but in life as well. Much of living can be learned through weaving!
For more than 2,000 years, the communities in the highlands of Guatemala have passed down orally the tradition of weaving from generation to generation. In the Maya villages of Mesoamerica, weaving was a feminine activity associated with fertility; fertility and weaving even shared a goddess, Ixchel. Today, the craft of weaving has changed a lot, not only when it comes to the use of the traditional indigenous garments, but also because of new materials, designs, and technology. And today, even men weave.
The way of transmitting this ancestral knowledge is slowly being lost, however. Mothers would rather have their daughters go to school and study some modern profession, leaving the looms, stored away and triste (sad, as the grandmothers say when a loom is not being used). When they say triste, they mean the empty space that not weaving leaves, because through weaving they teach values as well as ways of thinking and feeling. Working the backstrap loom seems to them to reaffirm the identity of the Maya people, relive their culture, and maintain in the present the ancient language of the weavings.
For more than 35 years, all this richness has been studied in the textiles in the collection of the Ixchel Museum, where more than 3,000 pieces speak to us of the daily life, rituals and other aspects of the Maya culture. We have been entrusted with disseminating this cultural knowledge, and our work is shown in the permanent, temporary, traveling, and interactive exhibitions of the museum.
Because of the urgency caused by the growing loss of ancestral knowledge and thus of identity, we sought a more direct way to return this cultural heritage to the communities in which it originated. As a result, in 2002, a grant from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) allowed us to launch the Textile Tradition Revitalization Program. Giving priority to the high plateau communities where the textile tradition is seen as being at high risk, the idea is to set up a system of apprenticeship for the craft and to incorporate knowledge about weaving textiles into the national education system. With a focus on teaching, this approach frames weaving in terms of national cultural patrimony and sets it up as an important matter in the diversity of Guatemalan society. Groups of children between 11 and 13 years of age learn about textile weaving, with instruction adapted as needed for each community. With the constant support of the museum, teachers have committed themselves to following students for the length of the school year, using select teaching materials, making visits to the Ixchel Museum in Guatemala City and maintaining direct contact with a master weaver in the area. This experience is complemented by dynamic discussion workshops, awareness and sensitization, all to achieve the appreciation of Maya culture through the weaving tradition and specifically through textiles as works of art.
Nine years later, the Revitalization Program has become enormously enriched with the contributions of each community in which it takes place. The results are palpable. The program has reestablished generational bridges, it has fortified the identities of children, their families, and their teachers, and above all, it has managed to present weavings as transcending purely economic importance and approaching a dimension that is human, aesthetic, and cultural. The representation of all this is the last exhibit in the galleries of the museum, where participants in the program created each textile on display.
Fabiana Flores Maselli is the Education Director of the Museo Ixchel del Traje Indígena in Guatemala City.
Fabiana Flores Maselli es la directora educativa del Museo Ixchel del Traje Indígena.