Art history professor creates new research opportunities

Assistant Professor of Art History Khristin Landry-Montes has spent nearly a decade working in the region of Yucatan, Mexico, and researching the culture, history, art, and landscapes of Maya communities.

Middle school students in the Maya town of Calotmul, Yucatan, Mexico learn about the Dresden Codex, an ancient Maya book.
Landry-Montes and student ambassadors from Universidad de Oriente teach middle school students in the Maya town of Calotmul, Yucatan, Mexico, about the Dresden Codex, an ancient Maya book.

Now she’s hoping to share what has come to feel like a second home with Cornell College students as she embarks on a mission to provide new research opportunities in Yucatan.

“I think it’s really important for Cornell students to work with Indigenous American communities directly when they study the art and history of these cultures. Unfortunately, in many fields, Indigenous American voices have been, and to a large degree continue to be, marginalized in this country and others,” Landry-Montes said.

The professor has studied many topics in her years traveling to Yucatan, most recently with a nongovernmental organization called InHerit (Indigenous Heritage Passed to Present) based at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. As part of InHerit, she and a team of researchers, local teachers, and students from nine Maya communities concluded a project to spread knowledge about the cultural importance of Yucatan’s cenotes (fresh-water sinkholes), in an effort to promote their preservation.

Now Landry-Montes is mapping out the next research project. In many ways inspired by the earlier InHerit project, this new project will focus on storytelling, especially related to codices–ancestral Maya books filled with cultural information, images of deities and rituals, and hieroglyphics. These books were almost entirely destroyed by fire when Spanish missionaries came to the Yucatan Peninsula in the early 16th century. Landry-Montes says only four of the books written before Spanish contact remain (three likely came from Yucatan and one from the Mexican state of Chiapas). 

Due to the significant loss of these books during the Spanish conquest, the removal of the remaining books to foreign libraries and museums, as well as limited internet connections in Maya towns, most Maya communities no longer have access to the cultural knowledge and stories within these books. The goals of the storytelling project are to develop and circulate curriculum focused on the codices in Maya communities, record and archive contemporary oral histories, and provide more accessible electronic access to copies of the codices.

“As far as the communities, art history, and anthropology are concerned, this type of material is really precious,” Landry-Montes said. “We really don’t have more than a handful of these books when hundreds of them were likely written. For this project, both our Maya students as well as Cornell students will be working together with this content. They will also be using methodological frameworks that are sensitive to social justice and strengthen intercultural literacy and communication. I am very hopeful that work related to this project can be undertaken by students engaging in Cornell’s core curriculum, known as Ingenuity

Middle students hold a copy of the Dresden Codex in the Maya town of Calotmul, Yucatan, Mexico.
Middle students hold a copy of the Dresden Codex in the Maya town of Calotmul, Yucatan, Mexico.

Landry-Montes says the research project naturally evolves from existing art history courses at Cornell. In addition, the Department of Art and Art History is also planning a future study abroad course called Art and Agency in the Maya World, which will work in tandem with this research storytelling project.

Sophomore Gwen Paule is the first student who will travel with Landry-Montes to Mexico for the summer. Paule will serve as an intercultural ambassador together with Ana Tamay Nahuat, a Maya alumna from the Universidad de Oriente, in Yucatan. Together with Landry Montes, co-director Angelica Garrido Duran, based in Merida, Yucatan, and Maya codex experts including Gabrielle Vail, the group will work with teachers and students in Maya communities to co-design curriculum focused on the codices. The team hopes the students will then carry on the knowledge for generations.

“This project is special for me because the opportunity to work with Indigenous communities whose ancestors created this magnificent art (the codices) is a dream come true,” Paule said. “Although we don’t know the names of the specific authors and artists for these books, their imagery is clearly from Maya traditions. These books were stolen from the ancient Maya and their descendants by the Spanish. We get the opportunity to help take this knowledge back to its rightful place in the world: in its people’s possession.”

Landry-Montes, who started at Cornell in 2019, met Paule in her first class on the Hilltop. Witnessing her passion for learning and her ability to speak Spanish, it was easy for Landry-Montes to see that Paule would be the first to take the research trip. The double major in biochemistry & molecular biology and Spanish will also work with other university students in the Yucatan with similar passions. Paule also plans to interview a j’men, a traditional medicine man, while they are abroad.

“I hope to develop my cultural awareness further through this project,” Paule said. “My main personal goal is to learn to fully listen before I speak. This project will require me to let others take the wheel, which can be difficult for me. Education-wise I hope to experience many more aspects of Mayan culture, language, art history, modern art, and medicine.”

Landry-Montes will teach more on the topic during her Block 2 course, Sacred Landscapes of the Ancestral Americas, and will host a campus-wide talk with both Native and non-Native scholars, artists, and activists on Oct. 22 via Zoom.

Please email Landry-Montes at for more information.