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Mary Miller GRD ’81, former dean of Yale College and senior director of Yale’s Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage, spoke on Thursday afternoon about several cultural artifacts from pre-Hispanic Mexico at the David Friend Hall in the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.

As part of the Peabody’s monthly gallery talk series, Miller — who University President Peter Salovey GRD ’86 recently announced will leave Yale in December 2018 — presented five objects from the Peabody’s collection of pre-Hispanic objects from Mexico and Central America. Speaking to an audience of about 25 students, professors and members of the public, Miller explained the history of these objects and the stories behind their discoveries.

“What I want you to think about is: How was it that starting in the 19th century — starting with the independence of Mexico from Spain — an ancient material culture began to be known in the United States and in Europe?” she said at the beginning of her talk.

To answer the question, Miller led the audience through the journeys of 19th- and 20th-century explorers in discovering pre-Hispanic objects from Mexico.

Miller’s presentation was the second-to-last talk of this semester’s series, which began as an initiative in 2016 when the museum celebrated its 150th anniversary. Since the first gallery talk in October 2016, the Peabody has hosted more than 20 of these events, spanning everything from fossil preparation to wildlife artwork.

“[Director of the Peabody] David Skelly wanted to the give the campus community, in particular, greater access to the depth of the Peabody by having faculty curators and collections managers share interesting stories about some of the objects in our collections that most people don’t really have a chance to learn about,” said David Heiser, the director of student programs at the Peabody.

Heiser said the Peabody will continue to host this informal speaker series in subsequent semesters.

Miller began her talk by discussing the earliest American expeditions to investigate ancient Mexico. In the 1830s, she explained, U.S. Secretary of War Joel Poinsett, the namesake of the poinsettia, headed the United States Exploring Expedition — the first U.S.-sponsored circumnavigation of the globe. While visiting Mexico, Poinsett collected various geographical and anthropological specimens, bringing them back to the United States.

Another of the early explorers, John Lloyd Stephens, was influential in finding and creating renderings of the great Mayan cities, Miller said. Unfortunately, many of the objects that he discovered and gave to the Smithsonian Institution were later lost when the museum suffered a devastating fire in 1865.

One of the objects Miller selected to present was an intricately detailed ceramic pot similar to one found by Stephens in the Mayan city of Chichén Itzá, in what is now Yucatán.

“This is actually one of the very first indications that we have of Mayan ceramics — and this ability to render the human form in ways that seem instantly recognizable as a tradition,” Miller said.

Miller then described the travels of Julius Skilton, a Union Army surgeon during the Civil War who later became the “right-hand man” of Mexico President Benito Juárez. Skilton — often using treacherous and double-dealing methods, Miller noted — amassed a large collection of objects in the late 19th century, selling them to the founder of the Peabody, O.C. Marsh.

Miller brought one of Skilton’s findings, a small green sculpture of a person with an oversized head done in a pre-Hispanic art style.

“These are the foundational collections — by Skilton, Stephens and Poinsett — that give us a sense of what an ancient past in Mexico looked like,” Miller said.

She next introduced a sculpture of a woman from the collection of Josef Albers, who gave hundreds of works to the Peabody in the mid-20th century. Figurines such as this one — often naked and dubbed “Pretty Ladies” — were extremely popular in the 1960s among Hollywood moguls, she said.

Finally, Miller discussed two of the most recent Mayan object acquisitions to the Peabody: a pot used for royal ceremonies found in Guatemala and a figurine of a woman that was discovered in Mexico.

Anthropology professor Oswaldo Chinchilla Mazariegos — who presented the first Peabody gallery talk of the spring semester, discussing animals that lived in the Aztec city of Mexico — said he appreciated the opportunity to hear Miller’s insights about the Mesoamerican artifacts.

The final talk of the semester will take place on May 10 with Jessica Glass ’10 GRD ’20, who studies the phylogenetic relationships of marine fishes.

Amy Xiong | amy.xiong@yale.edu