Could talent in ball playing games be in the blood of Central and Mesoamericans? Judging from the array of ball playing figures and figurines in the Art of the Ancient Americas collection in the Princeton University Art Museum, you would think these kinds of sports were and are in the peoples’ collective unconscious, if not their actual DNA.

“Those are mostly from Mesoamerica, Mexico, and the northern part of Central America,” says Bryan Just, Art of the Ancient Americas gallery curator and lecturer. “A variety of ballgames were practiced and featured in many ranges of artworks. There are many variants of the game, but we think the most prominent game would take place in a narrow alleyway, the width of the road and framed by walls on either side. The two teams would face each other and strike the balls back and forth, and the striking was done with the hips, not the arms and legs. That’s why you see the figures of the ball players with wrapping about the mid-section.”

“It’s a little like soccer, except for the striking, and the rules varied,” Just says. “You’d either strike the markers on the sides of the court or try to get the ball past the other team. The other thing that’s interesting is that the ball is made from latex, which comes from the sap of an (indigenous) tree — so this makes it a bouncy object. When the Spanish arrived they were amazed to the see this.”

Beginning about a year ago, Just has led the refurbishment and renovation of the museum’s Art of the Ancient Americas gallery, which was unveiled to the public on February 3.

The collection covers a vast geography — from Chile to the Arctic — and spans five millennia, with some 6,000 objects representing 40 cultures from these ancient civilizations. The refurbishment, the first since 1989, rethinks and improves the viewer’s experience. It also reflects innovative and elegant installation design.

The comprehensive reorganization of these galleries includes updated lighting enabled by recent technological advances; interpretive information and compelling stories for every object in the gallery, intended to inspire closer and deeper consideration; and a greater balance across South, Central, and North American cultures, with increased numbers of works from the Amazon and the Mississippi River basins, for example.

In addition the collection’s most important works will be highlighted and more accessible, thanks to a considerable reduction in the number of objects on view.

“Before there were 800 objects in a 2,000 square-foot space, which is a lot of material,” Just says. “The labeling and lighting was difficult simply because you can’t get all that stuff into such a small space. So to light things better and include more descriptions of each object, we had to pare things down. Now there are 200 objects in the space. That’s only two or three percent of our things on display, but (a number) that is better for the space.”

“This way we’ll be able to rotate the objects from time to time,” he continues. “Viewers now are seeing the first incarnation of the space, and there’s still a lot of the material to be brought out and shown. James Steward, the museum’s director, suggested that we give the objects that have some fame in the field the attention they deserve, and flatter a smaller number of objects. We felt that this would draw the visitor in better.”

Just also hopes that, with fewer objects on display, viewers will focus more, perhaps even get drawn in to one or two very special works in the gallery. “That’s what I hope people will take away from the new installation. That they’ll go to this and other museums the way I go to a museum, and that they’ll be struck by one or two objects in particular. Seeing them will inspire the viewers to go for a deeper explanation. Really exploring the objects and really reading the descriptions makes for a deeper visual experience,” Just says.

One of the “superstar” objects in this collection is the Princeton Vase, Mayan in origin and dating from about A.D. 670-730. It is an elaborate ceramic cup probably used during courtly feasts to drink “maize tree” chocolate and featuring text that designates its owner, a Mayan lord named Muwaan K’uk’. With masterful calligraphic painting, it is one of the finest examples of Maya “codex style” ceramic art. Its graceful lines present a mythological scene, and subtle visual devices encourage the user to turn the vessel so the narrative unfolds over time.

“Museums use cumbersome numbers (to designate an object), but no one else will recognize it,” Just says. “Scholars will write about the cup as ‘the Princeton Vase,’ and so the name has stuck. In fact, the artist is known as ‘the Princeton Painter’ and this is considered his signature work.”

Among the strengths of the PUAM’s holdings from the Ancient Americas is one of the finest collections of Mesoamerican art in the world. Highlights include ceramic objects from the lowland Maya region, as well as Olmec ceramic, jade, and serpentine objects and ceramic vessels — some in the form of humans or animals — from the Mochica culture of the northern coast of Peru.

The look and feel of the refurbished gallery is hushed and sophisticated. The objects are displayed in a flow from the very southernmost regions of the Americas, to the left as one enters, through artworks from Central and Mesoamerica — placed in the middle — and then up through the United States and North America, all the way through Alaska and the Arctic.

“One of things we felt most strongly about was thinking about the visitor experience,” Just says. “We felt that people should have a clear sense of the various regions represented as they went through the space. Before the re-installation, as the collection grew, things were placed wherever space in the gallery was available, which got confusing.”

“By starting over we wanted to provide a very clear sense of where the objects were from and show the different cultures from north to south,” he explains. “The idea of clarifying the region and chronology was a central component to the re-installation. So we started at one end and went forward to another, which also made for different juxtapositions.”

Princeton first began collecting indigenous American art in the late 19th century, with gifts to the museum and exhibitions devoted to ancient American art. One of the first and most generous donors was Sheldon Jackson, a Presbyterian missionary, educator, and collector, as well as a graduate of the Princeton Theological Seminary. While stationed in Sitka, in southern Alaska, in the late 1800s, Jackson collected numerous native objects, many from the Tlingit people, and sent them back to Princeton.

With the renovation of the gallery, the objects from this part of the world really stand out. Viewers will see shaman figurines, masks inspired by the moon, a helmet in the form of a sea lion, headdresses, ritualistic rattles, and whatnot adorned with images of bears and avians, such as cranes and ravens. “These represent some of the earliest artifacts to come to the museum,” Just says.

Also instrumental in helping the museum’s collection of ancient American art and artifacts grow was — and is — Gillette G. Griffin, the museum’s first curator in this field, an avid collector and educator in pre-Columbian art, and a longtime Princeton resident.

Under Griffin’s guidance, the collection grew significantly in the second half of the 20th century, becoming one of the richest in the museum’s globe-spanning holdings. PUAM recently welcomed a gift from Griffin to its ancient Americas collection — an Olmec-style stone maskette.

Just began his relationship with the museum in the summer of 2005 as an intern and became Peter Jay Sharp curator in 2008. He grew up in Little Falls, a town on the banks of the Mississippi River,in central Minnesota, in a family of educators. His father, now retired, was the principal of Little Falls Community High School, where he was also the head coach of the football team. His mother was a teaching assistant at the local elementary school, with a special interest in visual art.

“She always encouraged my drawing and painting,” Just says. “So I was always interested in art as well as in ancient America, but it wasn’t until I was an undergrad at Yale that I really discovered it. I took many courses with some of the premier figures in the field, and I also became much more aware when I traveled to South and Central America. I became really dedicated to the topic.”

“My primary area of focus is the land of the ancient Maya in southern Mexico and Guatemala. I studied and worked extensively with hieroglyphics and history,” he says. “There was much use of hieroglyphics in Maya, and there are many different kinds of scripts in ancient Mexico, but Mayan is the most famous.”

Indeed, Just tapped into his expertise in this field when he curated the 2012-’13 exhibit “Dancing into Dreams: Maya Vase Painting of the Ik’ Kingdom.” Many of these exquisite works can be seen currently at the gallery as well.

He graduated from Yale in 1995, with a bachelor of arts in archaeology studies and history of art, then earned a master’s degree in art history from Tulane University in New Orleans in 1999. Just earned his Ph.D. in the Tulane’s interdisciplinary program in art history and linguistics in 2006.

Just has curated or co-curated several other exhibits at the PUAM, including “Gifts from the Ancestors: Ancient Ivories of Bering Strait,” which was on view in 2009-’10. He has published numerous articles and conference papers and has facilitated dozens of public lectures and workshops. Just’s teaching at Princeton has included seminars on Maya, Olmec, and American Southwest art as well as introductory lecture courses on the art of Mesoamerica.

Just says he is most pleased to be able to exhibit objects on loan from important museum collections. “This gives us some great opportunities to complement our collection and also show objects that would be tucked away in other institutions. For example, some of the larger objects in the exhibit are on loan from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where they had been in storage. These things in particular will be central to the teaching I’ll do,” he says.

“Also, there were many things loaned from the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology,” he says. “For example, they have many objects from the Amazon River basin, including this great figural gold piece that is in its own case here. These are objects that would sit in storage otherwise, so, both institutions were delighted to share and allow people to see them.”

Art of the Ancient Americas, curated by Bryan Just, Princeton University Art Museum, McCormick Hall, Princeton University, Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday, 1 to 5 p.m. Free. 609-258-3788 or artmuseum.princeton.edu.

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