This year Mexico commemorates the 500-year anniversary of the Aztecs’ defeat by Spanish conquistadores. The year 1521 is understood as the year Spanish and allied Indigenous groups seized Aztec socio-political power in Mexico, initiating a long period of Spanish viceroyalty. The people, history, culture, and economy of that region were irrevocably impacted by this event. Many of Mexico’s cultural artifacts and art were scattered throughout the globe, appearing in both private and public spaces alike, an all-too common history for civilizations that have endured colonization.
Mexico has tried to recover a Mexica (how people now classified as Aztec would have likely referred to themselves) quetzal feather headdress from Austria for decades. In Nahuatl, the language spoken by the Mexica, the headdress is known as quetzalāpanecayōtl, or El Penacho in Spanish. There is speculation as to whether this headdress belonged to the last Mexica Emperor Moctezuma II, who was in power when Hernán Cortés and his militants came into contact and eventually overthrew Tenochtitlán in modern-day Mexico City. Whether this headdress belonged to Moctezuma II or not, it deserves to reside in its country of origin.
While a 20th-century reproduction sits in the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City, Mexico, an authentic headdress resides in the Weltmuseum Wien in Vienna, Austria. Although there is speculation regarding the authenticity of this object, documented records of the object’s acquisition in Austrian Archduke Ferdinand II’s art collection date to 1596, as well as the bilateral conservation studies conducted between Mexico and Austria in 2002 and 2010 that conclude its unique organic properties are over 500 years old. If the headdress at the Weltmuseum Wien is even partially authentic, there should be serious efforts taken to ensure its safe repatriation back to Mexico.
The Weltmuseum’s website states that the conservation studies mutually conclude the headdress must remain in Austria due to its fragility. However, just last year the president of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, again pleaded with Austria for the repatriation of this object. The original headdress is listed on the Weltmuseum Wien’s website as “the most prominent piece” in its collection, together with 18,000 other objects in the North and Central American collection. Is this object truly too fragile to be transported, or is the Weltmuseum Wien reluctant to repatriate one of its most famous works of art?
This situation is not unique to Austria and Mexico. The legacy of imperial history is visually represented through the archives and collections of countless Western museums and galleries, many of which accumulated their non-Western works of art and artifacts under questionable circumstances and ambiguous provenance records. Although the 21st century is frequently referred to as the “postcolonial” period, how is this defined when contemporary global society bears the imprint of imperial history and violent colonialism?
The situation between Mexico and Austria raises questions about — as Ariella Aïsha Azoulay writes in her book Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism — who has more of a “right” to cultural heritage: the country who fell victim to violent empires, or the imperial victor? Many centuries-old institutions served a role, consciously or unconsciously, in imperialism and the historical paradox of learning about a culture while simultaneously contributing to its immiseration. Some institutions have acknowledged this fact and have acted in favor of repatriating objects in their collections, such as the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian returning a Peruvian pre-Incan gold ornament, the San Francisco Asian Art Museum’s return of two sacred religious lintels back to Thailand, Germany’s return of some stolen 19th-century Benin Bronzes to Nigeria, and many others.
Why is the repatriation of this artifact important? The authentic headdress in Austria is the only one of its kind that has remained preserved. The headdress is not only a work of art, but a representation of the identity and landscape of Mexico that was stripped from the nation by colonial forces. The history of imperialism can never be undone. However, Austria has the opportunity to help amend this history by returning the headdress back to the nation whose labor and materials constructed it during the commemoration of the 500-year anniversary of the Spanish occupation of Mexico.
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