The Mayer Collection of Ancient Costa Rican Art at the Denver Art Museum: History and Research
by Jane Stevenson Day, Ph.D. and Margaret Young-Sánchez, Ph.D.
Most museum collections have their origin in the uniquely human desire to collect, preserve, and study beautiful or significant objects. Paintings, sculpture, decorative arts, and prized objects of antiquity all find their way into museums where they can be exhibited to the public and preserved for the future. The ancient Costa Rican artwork presented on this website consists almost entirely of the collection assembled over many years by Frederick and Jan Mayer. Through their generosity, the Denver Art Museum now houses the largest collection in the United States of pre-Columbian art from Costa Rica.
The history of this collection and the role it has played in fomenting new scholarship and research on pre-Columbian Costa Rica are quite distinctive. The initial impetus for the collection grew out of Frederick Mayer's lifelong stamp collecting avocation. While still a student at Phillips Exeter Academy, he built a stamp collection from Costa Rica; he continued this pursuit as an adult. In 1966, Frederick Mayer and his wife, Jan, traveled to Costa Rica for the first time at the invitation of a stamp collector and dealer. They traveled together throughout the country, visiting the places where Costa Rican stamps were distributed and canceled. In the course of their travels, they also encountered numerous pre-Columbian objects, offered for sale on farms and estates in the countryside and in shops and hotels in towns and cities. At the time, antiquities were freely bought and sold in Costa Rica and could be exported without restriction.
Mr. Mayer was intrigued by the artifacts and the ancient cultural heritage they represented. After returning to Denver, he began collecting pre-Columbian Costa Rican objects. Few other collectors or museums recognized the material's artistic or cultural importance, and, as a result, the Mayers were able to acquire a number of sizable old collections already in the United States.
From early on, the Mayers were fortunate in having the guidance and advice of Robert Stroessner, curator of pre-Columbian and Spanish Colonial art at the Denver Art Museum. Stroessner encouraged them to collect Costa Rican material exclusively, and through his contacts in the art world, helped them find important pieces. Although the Mayers' passion was for special objects of great artistic value, they also assembled an in-depth study collection. They acquired relevant publications and research materials, and docents at the Denver Art Museum assisted with the documentation and cataloging of objects. With the increasing size and significance of the collection, Jane Day (then a Ph.D. student in archaeology at the University of Colorado) was hired in 1979 to continue the care and cataloging of the material. This role was later assumed by art museum docent Elizabeth Pringle, followed by Dr. Frederick Lange, an archaeologist at the University of Colorado, Boulder specializing in Costa Rican prehistory.
The Mayers also made Costa Rican objects available for extended loans at institutions such as the Yale University Art Gallery, Phillips Exeter Academy, and the Dallas Museum of Art. Beginning in the 1970s, several museums organized exhibitions focused on pre-Columbian Costa Rica utilizing objects from the Mayers' collection. Among these were the Clara Hatton Gallery of Colorado State University in Fort Collins (1977; the exhibition later traveled to the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology in Albuquerque, New Mexico); the Lakeview Museum in Peoria, Illinois (1982); the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History in Boulder (1985-86); the Sangre de Cristo Arts and Conference Center in Pueblo, Colorado (1990); the Loveland Museum and Gallery in Loveland, Colorado (1990); and, the University of Utah Museum of Fine Arts in Salt Lake City (1990).
In 1990 the Denver Museum of Natural History (now the Denver Museum of Nature and Science) mounted an exhibition entitled Ancient Treasures of Costa Rica: Art and Archaeology of the Rich Coast that showcased not only objects but also new research and data. The exhibition covered 5,100 square feet of gallery space and consisted of more than 500 objects of ceramic, stone, gold, and jade from the Mayer collection. The exhibition opened on June 23, 1990, and was so popular with Denver audiences that it was extended for almost a year, into the spring of 1991.
At the instigation of Lewis Sharp, who was the director of the Denver Art Museum, plans had already been laid to donate the Mayers' collection to the Denver Art Museum, a move that would transform the museum's pre-Columbian collection. Works from Costa Rica came to constitute the largest and most significant component of the Denver Art Museum's important pre-Columbian holdings. Planning began immediately for a major reinstallation of the museum's pre-Columbian collection, one that would incorporate both traditional galleries and an innovative open storage display. Opened in 1993, the new installation incorporated many of the finest Costa Rican objects into the "Selected Works" galleries, a traditional fine-art presentation. The remaining bulk of the Costa Rican material was displayed in attractive, highly accessible open-storage cases that facilitate research and study.
The Mayer collection has figured prominently in archaeological research since the 1970s. While archaeologists were the primary users, scholars from the fields of geology, art history, and metallurgy have also worked with the collection. The Mayers provided financial support both personally and through the JFM Foundation for research projects carried out in Costa Rica, as well as for graduate students from both the United States and Central America. They also sponsored a series of conferences throughout the 1980s that brought together international researchers to share their knowledge on various aspects of pre-Columbian Costa Rica; the participants came from France, Germany, Panama, Costa Rica, Canada, and the United States. Four conferences (held in 1982-Denver, 1983-Denver, 1984-San José, Costa Rica, and 1985-Washington, DC.) examined the ceramic sequences, distribution, description, and standardization of the type/variety nomenclature of pottery from the Greater Nicoya region. These conferences, funded by the JFM Foundation, resulted in a landmark volume on Greater Nicoya ceramics published by the National Museum of Costa Rica as part of their "Vínculos" periodical series (Abel-Vidor et al. 1987).
Another major project partially funded by the Mayers was the development of a compositional database of Greater Nicoya ceramics, derived from extensive instrumental neutron activation analysis (INAA). Archaeologists working in Greater Nicoya and organizations holding ceramic collections from Greater Nicoya (Bishop et al. 1988, p. 18) provided over 1,200 provenanced field samples for analysis, which was carried out by Dr. Ronald Bishop and his associates at the Conservation Analytical Laboratory of the Smithsonian Institution (now Museum Conservation Institute). The results of the INAA analysis confirmed the validity of the independently derived Type:Variety ceramic typology for Greater Nicoya, and also demonstrated centuries-long local continuity in the exploitation of ceramic manufacturing resources such as clays and tempers (Bishop and Lange 2013).
An important conference, on New World jades, was held in Denver in 1987. Supported by the JFM Foundation and sponsored by the Center for Central American Art and Archaeology of the University of Colorado, this gathering built on extensive prior research conducted by many individuals and institutions, including the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Brookhaven National Laboratory, the National Museum of Costa Rica, the Jade Museum of the National Insurance Institute in Costa Rica, and Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection. The 1987 conference addressed the problem of the source (or sources) of pre-Columbian jade and the relationships between Costa Rican and Mesoamerican jadeworking traditions. Conference papers were published in Precolumbian Jade: New Geological and Cultural Interpretations (Lange 1993).
An additional volume entitled Costa Rican Art and Archaeology: Papers in Honor of Frederick R. Mayer (Lange 1988) resulted from a one-day conference held in 1986 at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Costa Rica was, once again, the theme of a 2007 Denver Art Museum symposium organized by Dr. Margaret Young-Sánchez (Frederick and Jan Mayer Curator of Pre-Columbian Art at the Denver Art Museum since 1999) in memory of Frederick Mayer, who passed away earlier that year. Papers from that symposium are incorporated in the 2013 volume Pre-Columbian Art and Archaeology: Essays in Honor of Frederick R. Mayer, edited by Margaret Young-Sánchez.
Another publication on the collection, the 2010 book Nature and Spirit: Ancient Costa Rican Treasures in the Mayer Collection at the Denver Art Museum, presents over 80 of the most aesthetically powerful and important works in the collection. Illustrated with object photographs, maps, and images of animals indigenous to Costa Rica, the book features interpretive entries written by scholars Dr. John W. Hoopes, Dr. David Mora-Marín, Dr. Heather Orr, Dr. Michael Snarskis, and Margaret Young-Sánchez, along with essays by Dr. Jane Day and Margaret Young-Sánchez.
Today the Mayer collection of ancient Costa Rican art at the Denver Art Museum is an invaluable tool for both art historians and archaeologists and remains the subject of multidisciplinary research. It also promotes public awareness of the sheer beauty and technical mastery of the finest artworks from ancient Costa Rica, through temporary exhibitions, publications, and gallery installations at the Denver Art Museum. Central to the lives and legacy of Frederick and Jan Mayer have been two goals: public appreciation and education, and the advancement of knowledge through scholarly research. This website develops their vision even further, making use of information technology and the internet to offer vastly expanded audiences throughout the world the opportunity to explore this rich resource. Funded by the JFM Foundation, the website and technology that support it will provide access to both researchers and the general public, and facilitate new discoveries.
Stylistically and technologically diverse, the objects of stone, jade, gold, ceramic, bone, and resin presented here constitute essential components of Costa Rica's cultural heritage. They testify to a deep knowledge of the land, its resources, and the animals that live there. They also offer insights, however fragmentary, into how ancient Costa Ricans understood the structure of the cosmos and the forces that animate it, as well as the nature of human society. It is hoped that the collection will play an ongoing role in revealing to the modern world the richness and sophistication of indigenous thought in the Americas.
Abel-Vidor, Suzanne et al., 1987. "Principales Tipos Cerámicos y Variedades de la Gran Nicoya." Vínculos: Revista de antropología del Museo Nacional de Costa Rica 13, nos. 1-2 (1987): 35-317.
Bishop, Ronald L., and Frederick W. Lange. 2013. "Frederick R. Mayer's Legacy of Research Support: The Prehispanic Ceramic Schools of Greater Nicoya." Pre-Columbian Art and Archaeology: Essays in Honor of Frederick R. Mayer, Papers from the 2002 and 2007 Mayer Center Symposia at the Denver Art Museum. Edited by Margaret Young-Sánchez, 27-46. Denver: Denver Art Museum.
Lange, Frederick W., ed. 1988. Costa Rican Art and Archaeology: Essays in Honor of Frederick R. Mayer. Boulder: University of Colorado.
_____. 1993. Precolumbian Jade: New Geological and Cultural Interpretations. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press.
Young-Sánchez, Margaret, 2010. Nature and Spirit: Ancient Costa Rican Treasures in the Mayer Collection at the Denver Art Museum. Denver: Denver Art Museum
_____, ed. 2013. Pre-Columbian Art and Archaeology: Essays in Honor of Frederick R. Mayer, Papers from the 2002 and 2007 Mayer Center Symposia at the Denver Art Museum. Denver: Denver Art Museum.