Saturday 6 November 2010


This post was originally written on 8th November, 2009.

On Saturday, we went to the British Museum to see the special exhibition “Moctezuma: Aztec Ruler”. The display is about Moctezuma, the last real leader of the Mexica Empire. Despite the title, the curatorial notes made a big deal about calling their culture by their real name ‘Mexica’, not the more well-known name ‘Aztec’.

The exhibition was very clearly-presented. It started with some background about the Mexica and their creation myths, which have to do with an eagle and a human heart. I guess that’s why sacrifices involving human hearts were so central to their religious and cultural practices. We saw a number of vessels that were used for collecting hearts for rituals. The story then continued with Moctezuma’s immediate ancestors and then moved on to discuss his rule. Finally, it ended with the Spanish conquest. Not surprisingly, it focused a lot on the relationship between Hernan Cortés and Moctezuma. Their famous first meeting has been the focus of much research and debate. Although the exhibit doesn’t come down on one side or the other about what Moctezuma thought of Cortes, or weather Cortes had Moctezuma killed or not, their story was effectively described through a series of paintings which later Spanish residents of Mexico painted to educate settlers about the main historical events of the area. It certainly did seem, however, that Moctezuma, for all his great power, gave away his empire to the Spanish.

My only complaint about the exhibition was that there weren’t as many artifacts as I would have liked. Still, the pieces they did have were clearly presented and explained. I enjoyed the beautiful masks made out of turquoise mosaics, the various paintings, the stone remnants from the religious section of Tenochtitlan and from Moctezuma’s palace. I also enjoyed the descriptions of Mexica’s iconography and symbolism. For example, Moctezuma had a special insignia that was put on all the things he owned as well as many of the monuments built during his rule. The use of the traditional Mexica calendar was also fascinating. For example, many of the dates were also included on the statues and artifacts we saw, in a manner similar to the Western practice of putting the year a building was constructed on its wall.

Lastly, the most impressive piece of the exhibit is a huge stone monument to great warriors. To me, it looked like a throne designed to look like a miniature temple. The curator specifically located the piece directly under the oculus of the British Museum’s dome, signifying the central place the piece had in Mexica culture. There was perhaps some interesting comment about the nature of Empire in the curator’s decision to place such a symbolic piece at the heart of the British Museum.

One Response “Moctezuma” →

November 10, 2009
There’s quite an interesting book called “Sor Juana or the Breath of Heaven” “the Baroque-era Mexican nun, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. When she died in 1695, she was arguably the greatest writer working in any European tongue, though she never lived outside her native Mexico” from Very well written, though very long and includes some of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz’s poetry. There is a strong flavor of both the Spanish and the Aztecs. And the land itself plays a powerful role.

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