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published: April, 2002

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MW2002: Papers

Integrating a Traveling Exhibit, Catalog and Educational Web Site

Michael Whittington, Mint Museum of Art, and Chuck Barger, Interactive Knowledge, Inc., USA


The National Endowment for the Humanities along with NEA and the Rockefeller Foundation awarded funding to the Mint Museum of Art in Charlotte, North Carolina, to develop an integrated project that could become the definitive work related to one of the most pervasive but little understood aspects of pre-Columbian cultures - the ballgame. The idea was to organize a traveling exhibition that was supplemented not only by a catalogue, but also by a large scale and comprehensive educational Web site. This approach produced an outcome that is more than the sum of the three individual parts. The traveling exhibition is the result of years of international negotiations and research. It represents the first time that many of the most valued artifacts related to the ballgame have appeared in one place. The catalogue includes eleven articles written by leading scholars in this field and over 150 pages of color photographs. It is the most definitive work to date on the history of the ballgame and its relevance to modern society. The educational Web site is a comprehensive treatment of the subject that is accessible to school children and scholars alike. It presents an educational context for understanding the exhibition and catalogue that greatly enhances both the museum and catalogue experience.

Keywords: Mesoamerican Ballgame, Maya, Aztec, Olmec, archeology, educational web site, pre-columbian


Museum exhibitions are a unique way of presenting scholarly material to a general audience. An exhibition permits teams of academic and technical specialists the opportunity to present new findings and test innovative methods for presenting and interpreting the material. Thus, by the time the exhibition is finally viewed by visitors, a rather lengthy and complex process has culminated. Major exhibitions in their current manifestations are collaborative and multi-disciplinary, exploring a variety of interpretative strategies from wall and case text, audio guides, catalogues, and the increasingly rare human guide. Multimedia technology has opened exciting new vistas in interpretation because it offers the possibility for creating a very engaging and interactive context for learning about the art and culture being explored in the exhibition.

In 1998, the Mint Museum of Art began planning a major exhibition of ancient Mesoamerican art, titled, The Sport of Life and Death: The Mesoamerican Ballgame. The unifying theme of this exhibition was a ritual game played throughout Mesoamerica—the modern region of Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras, from around 1800 B.C. until the Spanish Conquest in the early 1500s. The “ballgame,” as this ceremonial sport is commonly known, was played with a rubber ball in specially constructed masonry courts—much like modern sports arenas. The game was played between teams; indeed, as the exhibit touts, it was the first team sport in human history. It was, however, more than mere sport; the ballgame was layered with mythic symbolism and ritual pageantry. The ballgame inspired the creation of thousands of works of art, and these surviving narratives form the basis of our interpretation of this ancient phenomenon. Moreover, modern versions of the ancient games are still played in various regions of Mexico, studies of which have aided scholars in their interpretation of the ritual sports played thousands of years earlier.

From the onset, an integrated project approach was the model developed for the various components of The Sport of Life and Death: The Mesoamerican Ballgame. The exhibition itself would form the project’s foundation. To the exhibition, thirty institutional lenders from the United States and Mexico lent 180 works of pre-Columbian art.

Figure 1: Olmec figurine 1250-700 B.C.

Once this object checklist was secure, production on the exhibition catalogue began. The catalogue, with its eleven scholarly essays, became the research base from which information was gleaned for didactic material in the galleries, such as object labels and text panels, public programs, and the educational Web site (Whittington 2001).


The integration of the exhibition, catalogue, and educational Web site was a by-product of a series of planning symposia organized by the exhibition curator. The first of these, held in October 1998, brought together a core group of pre-Columbian scholars. Three distinguished Mesoamerican specialists: John F. Scott (University of Florida), Jane Stevenson Day (Denver Museum of Nature and Science), and Gillett Griffin (Princeton Art Museum), formed this initial group, together with the exhibition curator, E. Michael Whittington. This team created the themes around which the exhibition would be developed, identified major collections from which to secure loans, suggested essay topics for the catalogue, and discussed the applications for which interactive technology would be ideally suited. Their findings were incorporated into a planning grant proposal submitted to the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) in February, 1999. The NEH awarded the Mint Museum of Art a $40,000.00 planning grant in September, 1999.

The planning proposal narrative expressed a desire to use interactive technologies not only to teach the fundamental aspects of the Mesoamerican ballgame, but also to share essential information on the culture, history, and art of ancient American civilizations. The project consultants - now broadened to a team of interdisciplinary humanities scholars and technology professionals - commented that the interactive format of a Web site was the ideal medium to present this type of information, since it would permit users educational opportunities not available in traditional exhibition formats. Among the ideas presented in the planning proposal discussion were a virtual tour of a Mesoamerica ballcourt and an interactive ballgame in which users dressed their teams in elaborate ceremonial equipment - similar to the objects on display in the exhibition. Notably, both of these concepts were carried to full fruition in the final product.

The planning proposal documented the contributions of the Mint Museum of Art in this emerging field. For example, the Museum has an impressive history with such technologies for object interpretation. For school-age audiences, fifth graders access objects from the pre-Columbian collection and answer riddles, find clues, and discover facts from special software installed in their schools with the Mint’s D.I.G.S. program. A complimentary programs “D.I.G.S. II” entitled Crafting North Carolina is used for fourth graders studying state history. It uses objects from the Mint’s North Carolina pottery collection, and includes history games and puzzles to aid learning. A partnership made possible by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services permitted the Mint Museum of Art and the Public Library of Charlotte & Mecklenburg County to create a Web site for families based on the craft collection. Entitled Weaving a Tale of Craft, it featured interactive activities designed to introduce important concepts and traditions related to pottery, basketry and weaving.

Figure 2: The Home Page for Weaving a Tale of Craft

Early Mint projects utilizing interactive technology included two CD-ROM catalogues for exhibitions highlighting parts of the permanent collection: ancient and Spanish Colonial Andean art, and North Carolina pottery. For the Mint-organized, nationally-traveling exhibition Michael Lucero Sculpture 1976-1995, a Web site was created offering glimpses of the artist’s extraordinary and colorful ceramic sculpture. An interactive children’s page allowed site visitors to construct their own sculpture in the manner of the artist.

The NEH-funded planning process generated several significant results: (1) travel to museums in the US, Mexico, and Europe to identify collections and negotiate loans; (2) expansion of the advisory team of humanities scholars to include prospective catalogue essayists and technology professionals; and (3) preparation of Implementation grant proposals submitted to the National Endowment for the Humanities, National Endowment for the Arts, and the Rockefeller Foundation. The expanded advisory team included the original members with the additions of Eric Taladoire (University of Paris, France); Laura Filloy Nadal (Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico); Ted Leyenaar (Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde, Netherlands); Douglas Bradley (Snite Museum, University of Notre Dame); Mary Miller (Yale University); Eduardo Matos Moctezuma (Museo del Templo Mayor, Mexico); Maria Teresa Uriarte (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México); and Michael Tarkanian and Dorothy Hosler (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). Tim Songer and Chuck Barger of Interactive Knowledge, Inc., were selected as the technology advisors and developers of the educational Web site.

In November 1999, a second planning symposium was held at the Mint Museum of Art and facilitated by the exhibition curator. Attending were Mint staff, the scholarly advisory team and the staff of Interactive Knowledge. This meeting marked the culmination of the NEH-funded planning period, and the agenda was designed to refine the scope of the exhibition, discuss proposed catalogue essays, and facilitate the exchange of ideas between the technology professionals and Mesoamerican scholars.

While some of the project’s humanities scholars were technologically savvy, others were traditional academics accustomed to presenting information within the confines of discipline-based conferences and journals. Thus were the goals of the Sport of Life and Death: The Mesoamerican Ballgame project crystallized—the selection of an exhibition topic of profound scholarly merit, yet with broad popular appeal which could be disseminated to a world-wide audience through the use of traditional media and emerging technologies. The project’s interpretive strategy—heretofore constantly evolving—was further refined to create an integrated approach for all three components of the project, the catalogue, the exhibition and the educational Web site:

  • Catalogue - The print catalogue, with its definitive essays and individual object entries, including hundreds of full color photographs—would serve as the benchmark for all interpretive components of the project.

  • Exhibition – The traveling exhibition, the first time many of these extremely important artifacts of the Mesoamerican world have ever been displayed together—would offer visitors a powerful visual and spatial experience—the only opportunity to truly comprehend the size, weight and texture of the featured art.

  • Educational Web site - The Web site, featuring a wide variety of interactive, multimedia activities using photographs, animation, QTVR, audio and video – would create an engaging context for understanding the ballgame and the ancient cultures that invented and continued this ritual event for over three thousand years.

Planning and Production

The Web site team immediately began planning the site using the projected information in the catalogue skillfully adapted to the middle school target age for the site. In concert with the exhibition curator, Interactive Knowledge, Inc., developed a prototype of the Web site for submission with each of these proposals. Sample pages of the prototype were submitted in hard copy but, importantly, the proposals encouraged viewing the site on-line.

Figure 3: Prototype Web site design for Mesoamerican Ballgame

This access permitted the grant reviewers to understand the significance of multimedia technology as an interpretive tool for ancient Mesoamerican art and culture. The prototype stressed the following factors: the middle school target audience; the integration of the exhibition components, Web site and classroom activities; and interactive technology’s capacity for teaching ancient art by including virtual tours of archaeological sites, classroom and other activities. As with the first planning symposium, the efforts of the teams of advisors, museum staff, and technology professionals were incorporated into implementation grant proposals submitted to the National Endowment for the Humanities, National Endowment for the Art, and the Rockefeller Foundation. All three proposals were funded, resulting in $300,000.00 (NEH), $95,000.00 (NEA), and $75,000.00 (Rockefeller) in support to create the exhibition catalogue, and Web site, and pay installation and transportation costs.

Production of The Sport of Life and Death: The Mesoamerican Ballgame project’s multiple components followed a strict timetable. The exhibition was scheduled to open to the general public at 22 September 2001. The first phase to go into production was the print catalogue, submitted to the publisher, Thames & Hudson, in January 2001 (Whittington 2001). Produced in both soft- and hard-cover editions, the catalogue is 288 pages, with 160 color illustrations. Shortly after the catalogue went into production, Web site production meetings between the exhibition curator and the staff of Interactive Knowledge began in earnest. These first series of meetings re-established the goals and objectives of the educational Web site and created flowcharts establishing specific duties and production deadlines. Design and production() began in January, 2001 and was completed in August, 2001.

Figure 4: Home page for The Sport of Life and Death: The Mesoamerican Ballgame

The Web site design team at Interactive Knowledge, consisting of two instructional designers, an art director and two Flash programmers, worked with the exhibit curator to develop goals for the site. The most important was to create an engaging context for a wide audience to understand the culture and art of the Mesoamerican world. Though the focus for most activities was to reach a 5th -7th grade student population, the design needed to be appropriate for adults as well. Another significant goal was to present the action of the ballgame in such a way that visitors to the site could feel they had experienced the game. The use of interactivity and multimedia, features available through the Internet but not within the catalogue or at the exhibition, became a critical component for presenting a virtual ballgame experience. After considering a number of ways to try to capture the experience of the game, the Web team ultimately devised three unique approaches:

  • Video re-enactment - In the mid-1990s, National Geographic Society produced a documentary on the Mayan civilization titled, "Lost Kingdoms of the Maya.” A re-enactment of the ballgame was staged using modern day players of a contemporary version of the game. The footage was deemed appropriate for use in this site because the players were dressed in 15th century costumes and the game was being played in the famous ballcourt at Copan - a restored archeological site in Honduras. National Geographic Society received credit for the footage and a fee for the rights to use it in on the site. The video clip provides a genuine experience through close-ups of the players faces, the ball and wide angle shots of the impressive location and ballcourt structure.

  • Viewing the Game - One of the rarest and most valuable works of art featured in the exhibit is a clay model of a ballcourt complete with players, referees and spectators. Part of the Yale University Art Gallery's collection, it was created by an artist living in Western Mexico sometime between 200 BC and 250 AD. The Web site team planned to feature this work from the earliest discussions of the project. A number of ideas were considered, but one of the problems in finalizing any plans was the lack of access to the art until only a few weeks before the site was to be completed. After contacting Yale to discuss the possibility of arranging an earlier shipment of the model to Charlotte, the team learned that the Yale Art Gallery was undertaking a large scale documentation project that included producing high resolution QTVR files of many important works of art. The ballcourt model was scheduled to be part of this process. After a few discussions with the Yale University Art Gallery Digital Imaging Department, the schedule for photographing the ballcourt model was moved up to accommodate the Web design team's needs. The extremely high resolution photos and QTVR files were used to create a virtual tour of the model that includes an audio track featuring the exhibit's curator describing details of the work.

    Figure 5: Close up photograph from the Yale ballcourt model

    The model is presented in a series of rotating images and extreme close ups. The audio track, with narration and music, creates an intimate experience that could only be replicated if one were standing in front of the actual ballcourt model, discussing it with the curator himself.

  • Playing the Game - The Mint Museum staff as well as the Web design team were committed from the outset of this project to providing visitors to the site with an opportunity to play the game. How to create that experience became a source of much discussion. The budget did not allow for the development of a 3-D version of the game complete with Sega-style competition and gory ritual sacrifice of the losers. Something as simple as a "Pong" type game was too childish and would not suit the subject matter of the exhibit. After much experimentation, an animated quiz was designed in Flash that provides action, interactivity, sound effects and consequences for correct and incorrect answers. The quiz quickly became one of the most popular features of the site. It includes a bank of thirty questions about the ballgame (all of the answers can be found in the site) that are randomly generated during each new game. Two animated teams are represented on an illustrated ballcourt. The Web site visitor answers questions for the home team and watches the ball bounce between players before and after every response. The correct answer causes the visiting team to miss-hit the ball and gives the home team a point. Incorrect answers have the opposite effect. The first team to accrue five points is honored with music and flowers.

Figure 6: Animated quiz tests knowledge of the Mesoamerican ballgame


The Catalogue

As stated previously, the three main components of The Sport of Life and Death: The Mesoamerican Ballgame project (catalogue, exhibit, Web site) were intended to be distinct, yet complimentary. The catalogue was conceived as the permanent record of the exhibition, its goal to be a definitive source of scholarly information on the topic. As such, its target audiences were specialists in the field, non-specialists interested in ancient Mesoamerican art, and adult museum visitors. Great care was taken by the exhibition curator, who also served as volume editor, to have this publication make a significant scholarly contribution, yet still be accessible to a general audience—factors are not necessarily in competition. Importantly, the catalogue’s contributors fully supported these goals. Essays were edited to ensure reading consistency and to eliminate academic jargon, while at the same time attempting to preserve the author’s voice. Principal among the goals of this project was a large and diverse audience. Thames & Hudson, Ltd (London/New York) was selected as the publisher of The Sport of Life and Death: The Mesoamerican Ballgame because of its world-wide distribution network, in addition to its prestigious reputation as one of the foremost publishers of art and archaeology books.


The topic of the Mesoamerican ballgame has provoked serious inquiry for generations. Yet the majority of these finding have been confined to academic journals, scholarly symposia, and publications of rather limited distribution. At the same time, general knowledge of ancient Mesoamerican culture and art has risen as a result of popular magazines, such as National Geographic and Archaeology, and an increasing number of widely broadcast documentaries. While several exhibitions had included the ballgame as a theme, no singular traveling exhibition on this topic had ever been organized in the United States (Schele and Miller 1986; Leyenaar 1988). The exhibition format was particularly well-suited to the topic of the ancient Mesoamerican games since thousands of works of art depicting the games, the players and architectural elements from ballcourts exist in museum collections throughout the United States, Mexico, and Europe. It is this primacy of experience - in which the visitor comes face-to-face with the tangible, creative efforts of humanity - that is at the heart of the museum experience and that the exhibition curator sought to convey.

Educational Web site

The nature and complexity of the themes and contents explored in The Sport of Life and Death made it a unique opportunity to use interactive technologies. It was the exhibition curator’s desire to teach the fundamental aspects of the Mesoamerican ballgame, as well as share essential information on the culture, history, and art of ancient American civilizations. The interactive format of a Web site made it the ideal medium to present this information, as it permitted users educational opportunities not available in traditional exhibition formats. There were two goals that the design of The Sport of Life and Death Web site sought to address. First, the art objects included in the exhibition should be placed in a meaningful context to give Web site visitors an experience that is different than a museum visit, but still rewarding. Second, the Web site should introduce the pre-Columbian cultures that gave rise to the art objects featured in the exhibition, provide an understanding of the geography and natural history of the region, as well as present aspects of the exhibition itself. While it was recognized that virtual visits on the Web would be quite different from a trip to the art museum, a well designed Web site would create an effective and memorable experience and appeal to those who might not choose to or be able to visit a museum.

The Web site was intended to allow the public to prepare for a visit and to enrich understanding afterward, and it was seen as a powerful tool for communicating the exhibition’s themes to those unable to visit the museum (schools, homes and libraries). The Mint Museum of Art also provided access to the Web site via terminals stationed in the Educational Resource Center at the beginning of the exhibition (each of the venues on the exhibition tour have been encouraged to do the same). The Sport of Life and Death site was also to integrate well with the Mint’s Web site to enable users to learn of related programming and explore the museum’s other collections. The exhibition curator and Web designers felt strongly that animation, audio and video should be used throughout to heighten the encounter with works of art and archaeological sites.

The Web site structure is divided into four sections:

  • Explore the Mesoamerican World
  • Explore the Mesoamerican Ballgame
  • Experience the Ballgame
  • Experience the Exhibit

1.Explore the Mesoamerican World

Figure 7: Opening screen for the Explore the Mesoamerican World section

This section provides a compelling introduction to Mesoamerica and the ancient cultures that thrived there. Here, visitors can view a series of interactive maps and timelines designed to create a geographical and historical context. The maps include ancient and modern geo-political information and background. Visitors to the site see an overview of areas where the ballgame was played and a representative sample of the different types of art that were produced in various Mesoamerican regions. The most compelling reason for developing this timeline was to visually demonstrate the incredible duration of the ballgame across four millennia.

2.Explore the Mesoamerican Ballgame

Figure 8: Opening screen for the Explore the Mesoamerican Ballgame section

Section 2 includes distinct subsections: The Ball, The Uniform, The Court, The Ballgame. Visitors to the site learn about the ball, how rubber used to make the ball was processed, and the reaction of Spanish conquistadors when they saw a rubber ball for the first time. The ballplayers’ uniforms, with both the ritual and the practical adornments, are explored in depth. An interactive activity allows visitors to dress players, choosing from a variety of options, and print their results. The Sport of Life and Death site also includes a virtual tour of the Mesoamerican ballcourt at Copán, Honduras, presented in seamless, 360-degree format (QTVR). This section also examines the ballgame from a variety of perspectives, including a description of the rules and their variations across the years as well as a description by Spanish invaders of a game played several hundred years ago. The art created to document and celebrate the ballgame is explored via several series of pop-up windows that label and describe the artifacts in great detail.

3. Experience the Ballgame

Figure 9: Opening screen to the Experience the Ballgame section

Section 3 includes two interactive methods, called View the Game and Play the Game, for experiencing the game described earlier in this paper. Visitors to the site can View the Game by choosing to hear the exhibit curator describe the significance of an ancient ballcourt model while high resolution images of the object appear and rotate on the screen. A low bandwidth version of this experience is also available. Play the Game is an interactive, animated quiz that allows visitors to the site an opportunity to prove their knowledge of the ballgame by answering a series of questions. Correct or incorrect responses cause the illustrated players in the field to hit or miss the next volley of the rubber ball. Both of these features have proven to be extremely popular and effective with visitors to the site.

4.Experience the Exhibit

Figure 10: Opening screen to the Experience the Exhibit section

Section 4features an in-depth look at the schedule and special events at each of the venues that will host the exhibition. This section was created as a database that each of the four museums included in the tour has access to. Special, easy-to-use input screens were developed for each of the museums to use in typing their schedules, press releases and special event information. Each of the museums was encouraged to create a link from its web site to the ballgame site.

The Mint Museum of Art recognized the importance of registering the domain http://www.ballgame.org.This URL was prominently disseminated in all advertising media. The Web team from Interactive Knowledge launched the splash page of the site several months prior to the exhibition opening. This page had the appearance of a movie trailer, complete with “Coming in September” banners (Figure 10). Thus, the site was conceived as a marketing tool for the exhibition itself.

Power of an Integrated Approach

As The Sport of Life and Death: The Mesoamerican Ballgame exhibition travels around the country throughout 2002, host museums and their patrons will greatly benefit from the integrated approach taken in producing this project. The catalogue includes some of the most current and scholarly writing on the ballgame culture. The book includes stunning photography of hundreds of works of art and is published by Thames & Hudson, one of the world's most highly regarded publishers in the field or art and archeology. Visiting the exhibit offers a rich and dramatic experience. The art of the ballgame provides a glimpse of over three thousand years of ancient cultures and includes art ranging in size from monumental to miniature. The texture and shapes of the various palmas, yokes, hachas and reliefs offer an intriguing storyline about the importance of this ritual game in the lives of countless generations of Mesoamericans. As with most major traveling exhibitions, thousands of ardent patrons will visit the exhibit – perhaps more than once - purchase the catalogue, and expand their understanding of this topic by reading the essays and reviewing the photographs of the art. But those who are fortunate enough to be able to experience the exhibit in person and bring home a catalogue represent only a small fraction of the potential audience for this project. By including a large scale, well designed educational Web site, the reach of this project is increased exponentially.

From the opening of the exhibition in Charlotte, North Carolina, in September, 2001 through the end of January, 2002, nearly 1.5 million hits were recorded at the Web site. The Mint Museum of Art as well as all the museums featuring this exhibit heavily promoted the Web site with all their marketing and promotional materials. The schools that were able to schedule field trips for their students benefited greatly from the engaging online activities – suitable for most grades-- as well as from the creative lesson plans available on the site. The lesson plans are also designed for use in a variety of classrooms and do not require Internet access to complete. By offering an engaging context for learning about the ballgame and the cultures who played it, the Web site prepared anyone who visited the site before seeing the exhibition with a wealth of background knowledge and a sense of the significance of this art. The Web site provides a great resource for those who see the exhibit, but it also creates a tremendous opportunity for the project to reach hundreds of thousands of other interested children and adults who will never see the exhibit or the catalogue.

The ballgame Web site, like the exhibit, has enjoyed a great deal of national attention. To date, the site has been recognized with awards and citations from major Internet players including Yahoo!, Macromedia, Exploratorium and Omni, and it has been entered in a number of design competitions. In addition, the site has received positive reviews in several national newspapers and periodicals, including the Washington Times, Christian Science Monitor and Archeology Today. This publicity, combined with careful attention to maximizing the site's profile on the major search engines and critical listservs, has produced a steady stream of visitors to the ballgame Web site. While visits to the site fell off in the months after the opening of the exhibition in Charlotte, the number of hits has increased almost to their highest levels again now that the exhibition is opening in New Orleans. The potential for maintaining a steady stream of visitors to the site is very high as the exhibit travels around the country in 2002.

The goals for educating and entertaining broad audiences with The Sport of Life and Death: The Mesoamerican Ballgame catalogue, exhibition and Web site are being achieved. The lessons learned from integrating the efforts of the Exhibition Curator, the advisory group of Mesoamerican scholars, and the educational Web site design team will be applied to all future projects undertaken by the Mint Museum of Art and Interactive Knowledge.


Leyenaar, Ted J.J. (1988). Ulama: The Ballgame of the Mayas and Aztecs. Spruyt, Van Mantgem and De Does bv, Leiden.

Schele, Linda and Miller, Mary Ellen. (1986),The Blood of Kings: Dynasty and Ritual in Maya Art. Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth and Braziller, New York.

Weber, Christine (1999) (producer). Lost Kingdoms of the Maya. National Geographic Society. Video documentary

Whittington, E. Michael. (1999). Planning Proposal for The Sport of Life and Death: The Mesoamerican Ballgame submitted to the National Endowment for the Humanities

Whittington, E. Michael.(2000). Implementation Proposal for The Sport of Life and Death: The Mesoamerican Ballgame submitted to the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Whittington, E. Michael.(2001). The Sport of Life and Death: The Mesoamerican Ballgame. Thames & Hudson, London.