Heading back to Mexico a step at a time
Austria and Mexico close to a deal that would see Moctezuma’s Crown return on loan
By Martin Bailey. Museums, Issue 222, March 2011
Published online: 10 March 2011
MEXICO CITY. Mexico and Austria have moved a step closer to sharing Moctezuma’s Crown as Austria seriously considers returning the feathered headdress on loan for three years. It would mean that for the first time in 500 years the headdress returns to Mexico. The Mexican government is even discussing a change in its antiquities law to make the loan possible. Should the loan happen, it would set an important precedent for European museums with contentious objects in their collections.
Christian Feest, the director of Vienna’s Museum of Ethnology, describes the fabled object as “the Mona Lisa of ethnology”. Once assumed to be the crown of the Aztec rulers, the feather headdress is unique in its survival from the pre-Columbian Americas. Made from the tail feathers of over 200 quetzal birds, it is decorated with gold. In 1878, it went to the forerunner of the Museum of Ethnology (now part of the Kunsthistorisches Museum).
Last year the two countries agreed to co-operate over this part of their shared cultural heritage with Mexico’s National Institute for Anthropology and History and Austria’s Museum of Ethnology forming a bi-national commission.
Mexico’s foreign ministry says the goal is “to enable Mexicans to admire the headdress”. It also says that “an artefact currently in a Mexican museum that is of interest to Austria” might be lent to Vienna. This could be the golden coach of Mexico’s Emperor Maximilian in the Museo Nacional de Historia.
Two issues need to be resolved before a loan can be arranged. The first hurdle is legal, since there is a long-standing Mexican law that forbids the re-export of any archaeological material from the country. Initially it was hoped that the headdress would not be regarded as archaeological, but the Vienna museum needs assurance that its return would not be blocked. A special presidential decree on the headdress was discussed, but this might not be legally binding on future presidents. The Mexican government is now considering a change in the law on the re-export of antiquities.
Austrian and Mexican conservators also need to agree to the loan. The headdress was remounted on a display board in 1992 and cannot be easily detached. Conservators are reluctant to do so until a decision has been made on a new backing. This will depend on whether it has to be fit to travel. The feather vanes are fragile so a vibration-free case would have to be devised.
Decisions on the conservation and legal issues are expected later in 2011. Meanwhile, the joint scholarly analysis of the headdress continues. It is now being suggested that it may not even be an Aztec object from Mexico. “Quetzal birds are also found in neighbouring Guatemala, so it could be Mayan,” Feest explained. The headdress has been in storage since 2004, because most of the Museum of Ethnology has been closed for building work.
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