Mexican activists trade museum audio guides to demand repatriation of ancient headdress

During the month of January, two Mexican activists aided by local youth surreptitiously brought about 50 of their own audio guides to the Weltmuseum in Vienna, unbeknownst to the museum. The guides were indistinguishable from the official guides offered by the institution, with one notable exception: they called for the repatriation of quetzalāpanecayōtl, an ancient Aztec feather headdress from the Weltmuseum’s collection.

The crown of feathers, a longstanding highlight of the collection, has been the subject of restitution claims since the 1990s. As 2021 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the violent defeat of the Spanish conquistadors against the Aztecs and the conversations around restitution are flourishing internationally, calls for the return of the headdress have intensified further in recent years.

The activists behind the initiative are documentary filmmaker Sebastián Arrechedera and publicist Yosu Arangüena. Both collaborated in the production of alternative audioguides and facilitated its distribution (they were on the floor swapping helmets in a Weltmuseum bathroom). Voiced by activist and writer Xokonoschtletl Gómora, who is of Aztec descent and has been advocating for the return of the headdress to Mexico for three decades, the eight-minute audio recording presents itself as “a version of the story told by the descendants of those who suffered European conquest”.

The magnificent headdress, dated to around 1515, spans almost six feet in width and features hundreds of long green quetzal feathers as well as over a thousand gold coins. The Weltmuseum’s predecessor institution, the Natural History Museum, acquired the helmet from the Habsburg family collection in 1880. The provenance of the artifact dates back to the late 16th century, when it was in the collection of Austrian Archduke Ferdinand II; Archduke details the acquisition of the cuff are not known.

Activist and writer Xokonoschtletl Gomora (via Wikimedia Commons)

Although it is not clear if the headdress really belonged to the last Aztec emperor Moctezuma II and passed into the hands of the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés, as is often claimed, it has long been considered an object of national heritage in post-revolutionary Mexico. In the audio guide, Gómora, who believes the headdress was Moctezuma’s, describes the artifact as a “precious royal crown” denoting both spiritual and political power. After referring to the decimation of the Aztec civilization by the Spaniards under Cortés, Gómora states that the headdress “must return to Mexico where it belongs, because it means much more than a story told by an invader. It means the return of our ancestors, the return of our culture.

Today, a copy of the helmet made in Mexico in 1940 is in the collection of the Museo Nacional de Antropología de Mexico. In 1991, the country made its first official request to return the original; Austria rejected the request due to concerns about how the delicate object might behave in transit. From 2010 to 2012, Mexico and Austria conducted a bilateral study of the headdress and jointly concluded that due to the threat posed by vibration, the ancient artifact could not be transported safely. When the Weltmuseum reopened in 2017 after three years of extensive renovations, the headdress was installed prominently in a bespoke “vibration-free” display case in the collection’s permanent exhibition.

Ancient Mexican feathered headdress in the “Stories of Mesoamerica” ​​gallery (courtesy KHM-Museumsverband)

In 2020, while planning events commemorating the 500th anniversary of the defeat of the Aztecs, Mexico requested that the headdress be loaned. The request was again denied due to fears that the feathered crown would be damaged in transit. Some proponents of repatriation are skeptical of these claims, viewing them as a weak or outdated excuse for an institution invested in maintaining its hold on the valuable artifact. “We don’t believe in this version like we don’t believe in the untruths that have been told for so many years,” Gómora says in the audio guide. Last month, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador decried Austria’s refusal to loan the coindeclaring it “anticultural or selfish”.

Arrechedera has created a change.org petition urging the Weltmuseum to form an independent commission to reassess whether the helmet can withstand transport. At the time of writing, the petition has around 11,000 signatures. austrian legislator Petra Bayr, to whom the activists sent an audio guide, tabled a motion in parliament to this effect in late January, asking that the headdress be reassessed for possible transport. Arrechedera and Arangüena plan to make a documentary about the unfolding saga, “hopefully with a happy ending: the Crown returns to its place”, their website said.

When asked to comment, a Weltmuseum representative told Hyperallergic, “We see the artistic intervention that replaced the museum’s audio guides and provided an alternative recording of the ancient Mexican feather headdress as an interesting contribution. to the current discussion of postcolonial heritage in ethnographic museums.”

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