Inside NMAI

Inside NMAI: Down the Inka Road

The exhibition is open. The book is published. Does that mean the work is complete? Sometimes. But in the case of large projects that encompass more than an exhibition gallery, the work often continues long past the opening date. For the Inka Road project, the exhibition The Great Inka Road: Engineering an Empire is but one component of a project at least a decade in its duration.

The exhibition took several years to develop. Since opening in June 2015, additional work has been completed. The spectacular Inka tunic has “rotated,” or been changed out, three times. The first three tunics were on loan, first from Dumbarton Oaks, then from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The current tunic is from the collection of the National Museum of the American Indian – Smithsonian. (Now, all objects in the show are from the Museum’s vast collection.) Several new panels have been added, including a feature on vertical agriculture and terracing, one of the Inka’s great engineering contributions to the world. And from time to time, we perform maintenance, replacing the touchable fur on the llama panels, or installing software upgrades to the immensely popular touch table, the Cusco Experience.

Other additions happen away from the gallery. Part of the suspension bridge, built at the 2015 Folklife Festival by the community members who maintain the Q’eswachaka bridge in Peru, is being readied for its debut in the Museum’s imagiNATIONS Activity Center in New York City (coming May 2018), where it is the feature for fiber technology. In addition, a Spanish-language version of the exhibition is beginning to tour in South America. The Ministry of Culture of Bolivia opened the panel exhibition in the museum complex along Lake Titikaka in May 2017, where it will be the feature for one year. Already, thousands of people have seen the exhibition there. The Mayor of Cusco recently visited the NMAI to see the exhibition and the Cusco Experience, in hopes of bringing them to Peru. Discussions are underway with several more of the Inka Road countries. Updates on openings will be posted to the traveling exhibition page on the Museum’s website:

Ongoing Research

In some ways, the Inka Road project is the project of a lifetime. Museum curator Dr. Ramiro Matos (Quechua), an archaeologist from Peru, has spent his entire career researching the legacy of the Inka Empire in the Andes, from his own home in Caja Espíritu, through his tenure at the National University of San Marcos (Peru), to the Smithsonian. The Ministry of Culture of Peru presented Dr. Matos with a lifetime achievement award in 2015. It recognized his 55 years of archaeological research on indigenous societies in the central highlands of Peru, from pre-ceramic times through the Inka. And even though the exhibition is open, Dr. Matos’s research continues.

Dr. Matos spent June and July of 2017 in Peru. Part of the time was in the capital city of Lima, meeting with officials at the Ministry of Culture and Ministry of Tourism, and giving lectures at Pontifical Catholic University of Peru and Ricardo Palma University. The majority of the time was in the city of Cusco and in the Cusco Valley, expanding the research done for the exhibition. For example, the “Cusco Experience” mentioned above is based on a 3D reconstruction of the city of Cusco at the height of the Inka Empire. That map was developed by architect-archaeologists Dr. Ricardo Mar and Dr. José Alejandro Beltrán Caballero, of the Universitat Rovira i Virgili (Tarragona, Spain), from the Inka remains still visible throughout the city.

Over the last two field seasons, Dr. Matos has reunited with Drs. Mar and Beltrán Caballero for similar work at the archaeological site of Pisac, northeast of Cusco in the Cusco Valley. This summer, the work included use of a drone in order to capture aerial views, as well as photogrammetry lasers for precise building and wall reconstruction. (The photogrammetry and photography work done by our Museum for the exhibition will soon be available on the Smithsonian’s 3D viewer at; search “Models” for “NMAI.”)

Eventually the research team hopes to perform similar research across the entire Cusco Valley. Dr. Matos’s summer research was made possible by a generous gift from Kenneth and Ruth Wright, whose own work in the Cusco Valley, particularly in Machu Picchu, Tipón and Moray, has been instrumental in highlighting the hydrological acumen and achievements of the Inka.

Coming Next

The exhibition in Washington, D.C., is open until June 2020. Programming will continue throughout this time, including celebrating Inti Raymi, the Festival of the Sun, each June. The cultural interpreters are completing an exploration cart with many of the handling objects purchased for the exhibition, such as beautifully woven textiles, various musical instruments and ornamental items used to decorate the llamas in the caravans. Teachers can look forward to lessons on Inka roads and bridges, terraces and water management with the Museum’s new educational initiative, Native Knowledge 360˚ ( as well as additional STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) lessons from the Smithsonian.

Matos presented a paper at a conference on Inka engineering held in Cusco in November, concurrent with the listing of the Inka Road as one of the engineering marvels of the world by the American Society of Civil Engineers. The Society is also working on a companion publication about Inka engineering, highlighting some of the research featured in the exhibition. And, of course, Dr. Matos is planning his next research trip and lining up new speaking engagements.

The Inka Empire may have ended nearly 500 years ago, but the Inka legacy and influence continue in contemporary communities all along the Andes. The Museum has plenty of work still to do to highlight this dynamic region and its people.

Amy Van Allen is the project manager for the Museum’s Inka Road project. She is also a PhD candidate in Geography working on politics in cultural heritage.