Quetzal feather headdress. Mexico, Aztec, circa 1520 CE. Feathers of the quetzal, cotinga, roseate spoonbill, squirrel cuckoo, kingfisher; wood, reed chips, fibres, paper, cotton, leather, gold, brass. 51.18 inches height x 70 inches width. KHM-Museumsverband, Weltmuseum Wien, Inv. no. 10.402 (courtesy KHM-Museumsverband)

Over the course of January, two Mexican activists aided by local youth surreptitiously brought around 50 of their own audio guides into the Weltmuseum in Vienna — completely unbeknownst to the museum. The guides were indistinguishable from the official ones proffered by the institution, with one notable exception: They called for the repatriation of quetzalāpanecayōtl, an ancient Aztec feather headdress in the Weltmuseum’s collection.

The featherwork crown, a longtime collection highlight, has been the subject of restitution claims since the 1990s. With 2021 marking the quincentennial of the Spanish conquistadors’ violent defeat of the Aztecs, and conversations around restitution flourishing internationally, calls for the return of the headdress have grown even louder in recent years.

The activists behind the initiative are documentary filmmaker Sebastián Arrechedera and publicist Yosu Arangüena. The two collaborated on the production of the alternative audio guides and facilitated its dissemination (they were on the ground swapping out headsets in a Weltmuseum bathroom). Voiced by activist and writer Xokonoschtletl Gómora, who is of Aztec heritage and has been advocating for the return of the headdress to Mexico for the past three decades, the eight-minute audio recording introduces itself as “a version of history told by the descendants of those who suffered the European conquest.”

The magnificent headdress, dated to around 1515, spans nearly six feet in width and features hundreds of long, green quetzal feathers along with more than a thousand gold pieces. The Weltmuseum’s predecessor institution, the Natural History Museum, acquired the headpiece from the Hapsburg family collection in 1880. The artifact’s provenance can be traced back to the late 16th-century, when it was in the collection of Austrian archduke Ferdinand II; the details of the archduke’s acquisition of the headdress are not known.

Activist and writer Xokonoschtletl Gómora (via Wikimedia Commons)

While it is unclear whether the headdress truly belonged to the final Aztec emperor Moctezuma II and passed through the hands of Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés, as is often claimed, it has long been viewed as an object of national patrimony in post-revolution Mexico. In the audio guide, Gómora, who believes that the headdress was Moctezuma’s, describes the artifact as a “precious royal crown” denoting both spiritual and political power. After touching upon the decimation of Aztec civilization by the Spanish under Cortés, Gómora declares 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 headpiece produced in Mexico in 1940 is in the collection of the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City. In 1991, the country made its first formal request for the return of the original; Austria denied the entreaty due to concerns about how the delicate object might fare 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 vibrations, the ancient artifact could not be transported safely. When the Weltmuseum reopened in 2017 after three years of extensive renovations, the headdress was prominently installed in a bespoke “vibration-free” vitrine in the permanent collection display.

Ancient Mexican feathered headdress in the Gallery “Stories from Mesoamerica” (courtesy KHM-Museumsverband)

In 2020, while planning events commemorating the 500-year anniversary of the Aztecs’ defeat, Mexico asked that the headdress be loaned. The request was again refused due to concerns that the feathered crown might become damaged in transportation. Some advocates for repatriation are skeptical of these claims, viewing them as a weak or outdated excuse by an institution that is invested in maintaining its hold on the valuable artifact. “We do not believe in that version as we do not believe in the untruths told for so many years,” says Gómora in the audio guide. Last month, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador decried Austria’s refusal to loan the piece, declaring it “anticultural or selfish.”

Arrechedera has created a change.org petition urging the Weltmuseum to form an independent commission to reevaluate whether the headpiece can withstand transport. At the time of writing, the petition has around 11,000 signatures. Austrian legislator Petra Bayr, who was sent an audio guide by the activists, brought a motion to parliament in late January to this effect, requesting that the headdress be reevaluated for potential transport. Arrechedera and Arangüena plan to make a documentary about the unfolding saga, “hopefully with a happy ending: the Crown back where it belongs,” their website says.

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

Cassie Packard is a Brooklyn-based art writer. (cassiepackard.com)