Designing 'MAYA 2012' at Penn Museum


Some people say the Mayans predicted the end of the world in 2012. The new exhibit at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, with graphic design by St.-Albans-and-21st-streets resident Maryanne Casey, begs to differ.

“We’re trying to set the record straight — it isn’t true,” Casey, 45, said. “Here is how we are presenting it: As an expert, there is incredible scholarship and decades of study and hard work behind it. And we want to bring it to the people.”

Casey is part of the team behind Penn Museum’s “MAYA 2012: Lords of Time,” which opened Saturday. Casey, who joined the exhibit’s team almost a year ago, was a novice on the subject when she joined, but hopes that all visitors will be as spellbound by the history as she has been.

“I didn’t know anything and I’m so painfully ignorant, but I know a lot more than I did a year ago,” she said. “It’s really cool stuff, fascinating and amazing. We think other cultures are so different than ours, so primitive; yet they were so advanced. It’s very humbling.”

As the chief designer, Casey and the team were tasked with projecting the magnificence of the Mayan society within the confines of the museum space, as well as making the facts accessible and intriguing to the public.

“The Mayan temples were on such a grand scale, that is one of the themes we wanted. It’s hard to imagine taken out of context. You’re not in the jungle in Honduras. Seeing stuff as it is in context, bringing it inside the museum itself is weird, but we’re recreating an amazing experience,” Casey said.

The 11-member exhibit’s team created larger-than-life pieces, and designed the layout and flow to maximize the experience.

“It’s really interesting, you have two different audiences you are working with,” Casey said. “One is on the curatorial side and they are academics and they speak to other academics. Then the exhibits team is really there to translate what they are trying to say, to teach people and translate that for the public, the regular visitors coming in.”

A Long Island, N.Y. native, Casey attended Marist College where she studied communication arts.

“I wasn’t [interested in this in high school] at all. I just got really lucky and fell into a graphic-design career,” Casey, who began working in New York City’s book-publishing industry after graduating, said. “When I was in publishing, I worked in the art department and thought, that’s really cool.

“I was really lucky to have mentors that really saw the value in a career and who taught me how to have a career. It was really important and I really value that today. I try and do that, as well, today.”

When her husband, Rick DeOliveira, was transferred to Philadelphia, she followed suit. After realigning her skills with a desire to work in museums, she decided to return to school at the University of the Arts.

“It’s about presenting things in a fun, engaging way. One way I do try and do that is visually,” Casey, who graduated with a master’s in museum communications in ’08, said. “It’s really kind of cool. People don’t necessarily want to come to a museum to get educated. They want to come see cool stuff. This exhibit has such cool stuff, I’m really proud to have worked on it.”

After testing out a few places in Philadelphia, Casey and her husband were ready to make things permanent three years ago and felt the South of South area was a good fit.

“We bought a house. We could afford it. This neighborhood was a little cheaper. Mainly it was really close to Center City,” Casey said. “We both bike to work now. It’s really great. My husband and I really value living and working in the city and not having to drive a car.

“It’s a great neighborhood, and the neighbors are awesome. I’m so glad we moved here. It’s really diverse, it’s just great.”

Before her position at the Penn Museum, Casey ran her own business for a decade. She keeps up this entrepreneurial spirit by doing additional work on the side.

“I work on other projects, mostly for nonprofits,” she said. “I work with Developing Radio Partners. They go to third-world countries and set up communications.”

Her full-time job has kept Casey busy for the past year, with other projects in the works. For now, she is excited to debut the work that she has invested the majority of her time in.

“I’m super excited. I’ve been working on it for almost a year now,” Casey said prior to last week’s opening. “Some other colleagues have been working on it much longer than that. It’s been amazing and so much work, so intense. I’m so excited to see how other people see it. I feel so strongly about it.”

But the past year has not been all work and no play. Casey has enjoyed learning the history of the Mayans and standing in awe of the skill of the team behind the exhibit.

“I did just about all the stuff that you see in the exhibit that isn’t facsimile or an object. We have text panels and signs and a huge timeline, and maps that are eight-feet tall — really tall graphics,” Casey said. “One of the most fun things about the design and the show is that everything is on a big scale. I felt like Alice in Wonderland so many times, the stuff is just so big.” SPR