THE NATIONAL Gallery of Art is bringing a fiesta to the Mall this weekend with its Viva Mexico Family Weekend. The two-day event, filled with children's activities, will showcase something old and something (somewhat) new from our neighbors south of the border. Families are invited to explore an eclectic Mexican cultural mix that includes the art and legends of the ancient Mayans and the early Cubist roots of modern Mexican muralist Diego Rivera.
The weekend is part of a larger city-wide celebration of Mexico that will stretch throughout the summer and include exhibits, performances, film festivals, concerts and other events.
Most of the family weekend will focus on the Mayans, a civilization that flourished from about A.D. 250 to 900. They established warring city-states, each with their own king and court, in the tropical rainforest regions that today occupy southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and parts of Honduras and El Salvador. For reasons not entirely clear, the ancient Mayan cities were abandoned by about A.D. 1000, and the ruins receded into the dense jungle of the tropical rain forest.
As part of the National Gallery's festivities, visitors can hike in the "rain forest," construct a Mayan-style headdress and hear Mayan legends recounted by a master storyteller. An animated film will feature stories from the Popol Vuh, the Mayan creation legend starring the Maize God and his sons, the Twin Hero Gods, who beat the gods of the underworld at a dangerous "sudden death" ballgame in which the losing team is sacrificed.
The family weekend also will celebrate more modern Mexican culture with a mariachi band strumming in the cafe. Children's books focusing on Mexican art and culture from the D.C. Public Library also will be available for visitors to borrow while at the museum.
According to Natalie Ryan, coordinator of family and youth programs at the museum, the National Gallery tries to host at least two family weekends per year to welcome guests of all ages to special exhibitions.
"We try to have it be an intimate experience. We want our visitors to have some personal contact with the staff or an art activity," she said. More than 5,000 people attended the last family weekend, celebrating the art of Romare Bearden, in November, Ryan said.
One of this weekend's biggest attractions is bound to be Discovery Creek Children's Museum's Rolling Rainforest. It's a replica of a patch of rain forest housed in a 53-foot-long tractor-trailer. The mobile exhibit will be parked on the plaza in front of the National Gallery's East Building. It's filled with the sights, sounds and smells of the high-canopy forest. Visitors will hear the taped screeches of howling monkeys and smell the piped-in aromas of vanilla orchids, chocolate and coffee, which are all rain forest products. There is even a faux Mayan dig site inside the truck, where kids can touch a replica of a Mayan carving called a stela.
"There's an extraordinary connection between the Mayan culture and their environment," said Susan Seligman, president of Discovery Creek and originator of the Rolling Rainforest. "When you see the collection and see the rain forest, it becomes clear," she said.
Also outside on the plaza, the Discovery Creek staff will offer a kid's coloring activity centered on the sophisticated Mayan writing system. The ancient Mayans created an alphabet of intricate picture signs called hieroglyphs, or glyphs. On the plaza, kids will design their own animal hieroglyph.
Upstairs on the second-floor landing, in front of a wall-size photo of the ruins of a pyramid temple at the Mayan city of Palenque, the D.C. library will offer a collection of Mexico-themed children's books for visitors to browse through in the galleries and return.
"It just doesn't get any better than this, to have all these connections," said Wendy Lukeheart, coordinator of Youth Collections at the D.C. Public Library, who first dreamed up the mini-museum lending library for last year's Romare Bearden Family Weekend.
"Kids see the objects, get excited and want to learn more," she said. "They can only stand in the exhibit so long, so this gives them an opportunity to sit down, relax, share a wonderful book with a caring adult and be inspired by what they're seeing." The librarians also created two bookmarks -- one each for the Mayan and Rivera exhibits -- that list relevant books of stories, poems, songs and art activities to look for at local libraries.
The centerpiece of the festivities is the "Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya" exhibit. Earlier this month the fourth-grade class at Abington Friends School in Jenkintown, Pa., thought the exhibit was well worth the seven-hour round-trip bus ride the students took to see it. They've been studying the Mayans for nearly four months and will conclude their unit with a Mayan market. Team teachers Roxane Coleman and Andrew Rutledge explained that the students will sell items they made themselves, such as braided bracelets and clay pendants. The fourth-graders will use beans as currency like the ancient Mayans, who used dried cacao beans both as money and for making a spicy, frothy chocolate drink.
"It's really exciting coming to see the things the real Mayans made thousands of years ago," said David Buzaglo, 10.
"I think the most interesting thing is the mural showing how the Mayans lived and that they weren't always a peaceful people," said James Fischgrund, another 10-year-old. He described a life-size re-creation of a temple wall from Bonampak, an unearthed Mayan city; the mural shows battle scenes and the presentation of captives at court. It includes a line of war prisoners having their fingernails ripped out before being displayed in front of the king.
At the exit of the Mayan exhibit, the time period fast-forwards about a thousand years to the one-room display called "The Cubist Paintings of Diego Rivera: Memory, Politics and Place." The 21 works were created in France and Spain between 1913 and 1915, when Rivera was mingling with artists such as Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall and Piet Mondrian.
Back out on the second-floor landing of the East Building, visitors can return their library books and catch their breath. Many may try to head home and persuade their kids to partake in yet another wonderful Mexican cultural contribution: the siesta.
VIVA MEXICO FAMILY WEEKEND -- Saturday from 10 to 5 and Sunday from 11 to 6 at the East Building of the National Gallery of Art, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue NW. 202-842-6880. www.nga.gov. Free. Art exhibits, the Rolling Rainforest, hands-on art projects, documentary films and a children's book display are offered all day.
Scheduled events include:
Storytelling -- Saturday and Sunday at 1 and 2 in the East Building Small Auditorium.
Children's film program -- 60-minute animated tales from the Popol Vuh, Saturday at 10:30 and noon, Sunday at 11:30, East Building Auditorium.
Musical performances -- By Mariachi Los Amigos, Saturday from 11 to 1 and from 2:30 to 4:30, Sunday from 3 to 5 in the East Building cafe.