Museums Austria

Look but don’t touch

Mexicans will not get an Aztec headdress back from a Vienna museum—but they can see it for free

Made of 450 tail feathers of the quetzal bird, with gold appliqué, the Penacho is thought to have been worn by Aztec priests. Photo: © KHM mit MVK und ÖTM

The Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna has adopted an innovative approach to dealing with restitution demands: it allows free entry for Mexican citizens to see the Penacho, the feather headdress that was once believed to be the crown of emperor Moctezuma. Dating from around 1520, it is now thought to have been worn by Aztec priests.

The Penacho (from the Spanish word for “plume”) is probably the greatest treasure of the Welt Museum (World Museum), an affiliated branch of the Kunsthistorisches Museum. Made of 450 tail feathers of the quetzal bird, with gold appliqué, the colours are vibrant. It is shaped into a semi-circle, with a diameter of 175cm. The Penacho was taken to Vienna in the 16th century and in recent years the Mexican government has made periodic calls for its return.

Mexican citizens do not pay the Welt Museum’s €8 entry charge, which allows access to all its open galleries. Around 3,000 visitors, or 5% of the museum’s 60,000 annual total, take advantage of this concession by presenting their passport.

In 2012, Austrian and Mexican specialists examined the Penacho, to determine whether it might be safe to send it to Mexico City on loan. But although the feather headdress was subsequently conserved, the experts deemed it not stable enough to travel. Sabine Haag, the director of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, told The Art Newspaper: “The Mexicans were hoping that after conservation, the Penacho could travel, but it was still too fragile. Our responsibility is to preserve the Penacho and make it accessible—and hence our friendly gesture to allow free entry for Mexicans.”

Surprisingly, the wall texts about the Penacho in the display are not translated into Spanish (although there is a Spanish catalogue). The Welt Museum is scheduled to close for refurbishment in November, and Haag says there will be Spanish wall texts when it reopens in 2016.

In some countries, museums allow free entry for their own citizens and charge international tourists—but it is most unusual (and possibly unprecedented) for a museum to charge its own citizens and then allow free entry for foreign visitors of a specified nationality.

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