Cartier Masthead Final Weeks

Gold and the Incas: a treasure of an exhibition

Heather Wallace

For an empire that lasted little more than 100 years, the Incas have left a powerful legacy. From 1438 to 1533 the Incas used both conquest and peaceful assimilation to build an empire from large portions of western South America, the Andean mountain ranges, Peru, large parts of modern Ecuador, western and south central Bolivia, northwest Argentina, north and central Chile and a small part of southern Colombia. At the height of its power it was an empire of around 12 million people.

The official language of the empire was Quecha, along with hundreds of local languages and dialects. The term Inka meant ruler, or “lord,” in Quechua, and referred to the ruling class or the ruling family in the empire. It was the 16th century Spanish invaders who applied the term to the entire culture.

Gold and the Incas: the lost worlds of Peru, showing at the National Gallery of Australia until 21 April, features more than 200 works of art including spectacular gold pieces, fine jewellery, textiles and sculptures. It is drawn from 10 private and public museums in Peru, with some additions from the NGA’s own collection.

As the title suggest the collection represents more than just the historically fleeting Incan empire, giving an insight into the cultures that predate the Incas.

The exhibition is divided into each dominant empire by its geographic location. I was introduced to names of cultures I hadn’t heard of before, CHAVÍN 
(Northern highlands 1500–200 BC) VICÚS (North coast 100 BC – 400 AD), PARACAS 
(South coast 700 BC – 200 AD) and MOCHE 
(North coast 100–800 AD). As you become immersed in the artefacts your eye does start to pick up differences in cultures and also see where one has influenced another.

The pieces are astonishing for their detail and the skill that went into their creation. There are portrait head vessels that look as though the face portrayed could open its eyes at any second (below left).

Dazzling jewellery and body ornaments have been crafted from golden nuggets beaten almost to the thinness of paper, while the needs of a fishing culture from the coastal areas evolved into delicate textiles created through intricate knots (above right).

There are some things to be prepared for when you visit this exhibition. There is very little light used in the exhibition space, and although the gold and silver items are literally dazzling in the dark, it does make it extremely difficult to see the details of the textiles and ceramics and to read the interpretive material. Although this may be to preserve the more delicate items, it can take a while for your eyes to adjust. I saw a number of families with small children trying to complete activity sheets struggling with the low light.

It is also extremely cold in the exhibition, and although that is certainly appealing during the excessively hot weather we’ve been having, I suggest taking a wrap or light jumper.

Don’t be deterred though, this is a wonderful exhibition. I’d also suggest going on one of the guided tours or hiring an audio tour to gain more insights into the various cultures and artefacts, as the interpretive material alone doesn’t give a lot of detail about how each society worked.

Not to be missed is the very well designed Family Activity Room.  In this fun space children can be immersed in ancient Peruvian life, through spinning and weaving alpaca wool, understanding the importance of the sun, moon and stars to the culture, dressing up in costumes to become gods on Earth, decorating ceramics, and – my personal favourite – crawl through an interactive treasure-filled tunnel (I was only able to do at the launch when big kids like me were allowed in). And of course you can play with the toy llamas. Who doesn’t love a llama?

the essentials

What: Gold and the Incas: the lost worlds of Peru
Where: National Gallery of Australia
When: 10am – 5pm every day until 21 April 2014
Tickets: Can be purchased at the NGA or via Ticketek on 1300 795 012 or – audio tours $6 single and children, $10 shared.
Good to know: Guided tours are free and depart from the exhibition foyer throughout the day until 21 April; Spanish language tours at 3pm 15 Feb and 15 March; family friendly tours will be held during April at 11.15am and 2.15pm from 12 to 21 April.

Photographs from National Gallery of Australia and Heather Wallace.


Heather Wallace

Heather’s career in arts and heritage PR spans 15 years, with highlights including working for Sean Connery at the Edinburgh International Film Festival and promoting Australia’s World Heritage places. Her blog, Myths and Misadventures, (, is about life lessons we can learn from the Romans. You can follow her on Twitter @Missmythology. More about the Author