This morning, Visit London was lucky enough to get a sneak preview of the British Museum’s latest blockbuster, Moctezuma: Aztec Ruler.
As curator Colin McEwan explained to a large assembled crowd of press (Charlotte Higgins from the Guardian was there; so was Newsnight Review’s Natalie Haynes) it’s the latest (fourth, and last) show in the British Museum’s ruler series. (You’ll remember the hype over the First Emperor from 2007 and Hadrian from last year.) With Moctezuma, the museum has moved westwards and forwards from Shah ‘Abbas, taking a look at one of the principle protagonists in the history of the Americas.
If, like us, you know little about the history of Mexico from the 1500s, we’re sure you’ll find it a fascinating exhibition. Moctezuma was a contemporary of our own Henry VIII; but you’ll find little in the early stages of this exhibition to suggest any comparison with the English king whose 500th anniversary attracted so much attention earlier this year.
Inside the British Museum’s stunning Reading Room, evoking, Colin McEwan tells us, the basin of New Mexico, are several spaces dedicated to a balanced biography of this famous leader.
Moctezuma was the 9th elected ruler of the Aztec people. The British Museum has decided against using the term Aztec, favouring instead the term Mexica, beautifully pronounced “Mesheeka” by the lovely softly Spanish-accented guy on the audio guide. Part deity, full-on warrior, commissioner of public sculpture and buildings, orator, husband, father (he had 19 kids), Moctezuma’s world steadily comes to light in the early part of the exhibition.
Many of the objects on display – intricately carved stone vessels for putting the hearts of your human sacrifices into, stone skulls to adorn a temple with – appear to be from a much older period. Inside the central room dedicated to warfare (directly below the apex of the Reading Room’s beautiful ceiling) stands a stone pyramid that looks more like something from Roman times than just last century.
The masks that dominate the Moctezuma publicity materials are also on show, in a space covering details of the many Mexica gods. Yes, you might’ve been thinking that the blue-faced, big-toothed guy on the posters was Mr Moctezuma himself: in fact, it’s the mosaic mask of the god Tezcatlipoca.
Our favourite pieces include a gorgeous deep terracotta coloured Pulque jug laced with swirling linear designs, said to evoke liquid; to us, it looks more like an extremely modernist doodle. We liked the details about Moctezuma’s diva-ish eating habits: he ate alone, behind a screen, served on new plates that were smashed once he was done. And we loved the bright turquoise double-headed serpent, especially the idea that it was probably worn as a necklace.
Then suddenly, we round another corner of the exhibition and are plunged into 16th century Europe; more specifically Spain. It’s like stepping out of the British Museum and into the Thyssen Bornemisza. And so the tragedy of Moctezuma unfolds. When he saw the Spanish strangers arriving on the Gulf Coast in 1519, he offered them presents and hosted them in his palace… Moctezuma died soon after. Whether he was killed by the Spanish, or stoned to death by his own people ashamed of his “surrender” remains unclear.
The British Museum’s new exhibition allows you to make up your own mind.