Saturday, 16 January 2010

Moctezuma @ British Museum: a review

Better late, than never, they say. Well, perhaps not in this case.

This week, I finally got round to doing something I have been meaning to do ever since the exhibition opened and which I was very much looking forward to, due to my strong interest in the Aztec civilisation. I went to see Moctezuma, Aztec Ruler at the British Museum (BM). It closes next Saturday, so it was indeed very late but it was also rather disappointing.

My first big issue about the exhibition is that, unlike the fabulous Hadrian exhibition of last year that did exactly what it said on the tin, this one is not really about Moctezuma. Despite the fact that a press release by the Museum claims that the exhibition, which is the last in the series "exploring power and empire", "is the first exhibition to examine the semi-mythical status of Moctezuma and his legacy today", it is not really about him.

To be fair there is probably so little reliable information about him (ie information that has not been distorted by the prism of the conquerors' views) that it probably would not have been possible to have an exhibition about him. Similarly there are probably very few objects that have, without a doubt, belonged to him still in existence - a few (stone coffins bearing his glyph) were on display in the reading room of the Museum where the exhibition was located. There is also an obvious need to give historical context to the character, since many people would probably not be aware of it.

With all that in mind, we end up with an exhibition about Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City) which was Moctezuma's capital and the place of his downfall at the hands of the Spanish Hernan Cortes, the Aztec civilisation and the conquest. The question is, therefore: why call the exhibition Moctezuma?

Another question that could be asked of the BM is why bother with the exhibition at all. The artefacts on display (and some of them are truly stunning) are not very numerous and not very varied - mostly sculptures and too many pictures of objects that are not there. In fact this exhibition, or rather a much better version of it, has already taken place in London not so long ago.

It was called Aztecs and took place at the Royal Academy (RA) in 2002/3. In fact, comparing the catalogs for both exhibitions, not only was that one more extensive (there more than double the number of objects on display at the RA) and better focused and structured, the objects on view at the BM seem to have more or less all been part of the RA exhibition.

From a curatorial perspective, the exhibition is not really a success either. The white setting is rather bland and unoriginal, apart perhaps from the centre-piece mock courtyard with the four flights of stairs as if at the bottom of four pyramids, which did gave me a momentary thrill. The two films projected on the walls of the room are utterly useless and seemingly devoid of information, although it was nice to have the sound of the wind, birdsongs and other flutes in the background.

Most importantly perhaps, the exhibition doesn't seem to be following any truly definite and logical thread. As for the curatorial notes accompanying the objects, they repeat themselves too much and focus more on describing the objects than on explaining their usage and provenance.

Perhaps my view is biased by the fact that I already have a reasonable knowledge of the civilisation, but to me the RA exhibition remains a landmark, one of those exhibitions of a life time that people keep on talking about for years. The BM show is no match for that, sadly.

If you have not seen it yet and think you should make the effort, your time would probably be better spent on reading Aztec by Gary Jenning. It's a long but enjoyable and incredibly well documented historical novel, which reportedly took 10 years for its author to research and write (no real need to bother with the sequels).

Images: Turquoise mosaic mask, c. 1500–1521, Mexica/Mixtec.
© The Trustees of the British Museum

1 comment:

  1. I went to see it the Friday before this weekend! I did like the exhibition but it gets really boring when the Spanish arrive!

    I think that's a little unfair about being disappointing, the reason its Moctezuma is because its his life story it follows his family and is all about him! It told the story of how he came to power and then gave several explanations of how he died! The other point is that its part of the summer exhibitions in the reading room of rulers of the world! Chinese Warriors, Hadrian, Shah Abbas, Moctezuma. Next they're gonna have a boring Italian Renaissance drawings exhibition and then the summer one for this year which is gonna be from Nov is the Journey through the afterlife:the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, looking forwards to it!

    I also went to see the Staffordshire Hoard which was really disappointing! its two tiny glass boxes of stuff! lol its in a "room" upstairs but is tiny!

    I did learn something about Moctezuma but none of their things have been as good as Chinese Warriors and Hadian, so agree with you there! I never knew Hadian was gay! A bit of a shock going with my parents into the "gay" section *chuckles*

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