Alfred Percival Maudslay is the greatest British Explorer that no-one has ever heard of. Maudslay did all the things that Victorian era explorers should do ― like hacking through mosquito infested jungles and stumbling across amazing ancient cities in Mexico and Central America ― but that isn’t what made him great. He deserves that accolade for a far more visionary and humble achievement; his ability to harness the power of new technology to capture and communicate images of his discoveries.
Unlike many Victorian era explorers, he wasn’t interested in collecting objects that he found during his journeys, instead he was interested in recording them in their context. Maudslay was obsessed with the captured image and how he could use this to help preserve and share his love of ancient Maya culture and heritage.
Using the most cutting-edge technology of his time in the late 19th Century, predating the film and digital photography eras, Maudslay developed beautiful glass plate photographs and created enormous plaster casts of entire ancient Maya monuments. To transport this technology to the jungles of Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras was no small undertaking. Tons of plaster of Paris, hundreds of hand made, large glass plates, and dozens of barrels of chemicals were shipped from Liverpool on paddle steamers before being loaded onto mule trains to set off hundreds of miles across mountains and rivers into Central America.
Maudslay was also honest about the truth behind most Victorian era explorers: that they were nearly always clueless white European men without any idea of where they were going or how to survive when they got there. From the very beginning, Maudslay openly acknowledged his own inadequacies and established a lasting relationship with lifelong collaborator Gorgonio López, from Coban, Guatemala, as well as with local communities that he worked with throughout his life. These communities are recorded in his photographs, living and working among the stunning ancient Maya cities and landscapes they lived within.
These relationships were not only the subject of his images, they were also his source of knowledge and he used new technology to tell their stories to the world. His photographs allowed European audiences to see how the indigenous peoples of Central America had built some of the greatest cities the world has ever seen, centuries before Europeans ever arrived. These stunning sites, such as Chichen Itza, Yaxchilan, and Tikal, had been home to hundreds of thousands of people for millennia. These ancient Maya cities are also found in totally different environments, from lush subtropical forests to dry coastal plateaus. The extraordinary innovation and technological invention necessary to thrive within these diverse environments remains an inspiration to any visitor, as are the rich cultural traditions of the six million indigenous Maya living throughout the region today.
It is a sad truth that for more than a century now, the hundreds of glass plate photographs and plaster casts of Maya architecture and monuments have languished in the stores of the British Museum. One of the best preserved records of ancient Maya iconography and hieroglyphic writing in the world is accumulating dust, standing as witness and victim to the great challenge any museum faces in only being able to display a small fraction of objects in the collection. Yet this is exactly why Maudslay’s legacy in using images to communicate cultural heritage is so important.
Today, the opportunity for museums to harness the power of new technology and enable access to collections is extraordinary. I don’t believe this is just an interesting idea for international museums, I think there is an obligation for all institutions to take advantage of new technologies and engage collections with a globalized society. Museums can now reach and inspire new audiences with the extraordinary stories that collections can tell.
Imagine the school child in Beijing using virtual reality to walk around the ancient city of Palenque in southern Mexico and learn about the Maya ruler Pakal the Great without leaving their classroom. Imagine ancient monuments coming to life in your living room by using your phone to walk around them in 3D. These are the new technologies of imagination that museums need to capitalize upon to inspire the next generation. In this way, they can continue the legacy of Maudslay and harness the power of new technology to communicate cultural heritage across the globe. Helping more people to enjoy exploring and understanding cultures other than their own is the way to create a more enlightened, connected, and understanding world.
Words by Jago Cooper