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Azteken exhibition on the Aztecs, Linden Museum, Stuttgart

Review of ‘Azteken’ exhibition, Linden Museum, Stuttgart, 2019-20

For the first time in 15 years there is a new blockbuster exhibition on the Aztecs/Mexica here in Europe - at the Linden Museum in Stuttgart, Germany (October 2019 to May 2020). The exhibition is a joint initiative between the Linden - a long-established German state ethnological museum - and the Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen in Leiden (Netherlands), to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the arrival of the Spanish invaders in Mexico. How does it shape up? (Written by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: Rare Aztec treasures on display at the Linden Museum’s Azteken exhibition
Pic 1: Rare Aztec treasures on display at the Linden Museum’s Azteken exhibition (Click on image to enlarge)

The idea of museum director Dr. Inés de Castro, the exhibition was first planned three years ago, in order to show for the first time together two unique Aztec feather shields (there are only four, as far as we know, in the whole world) and a nephrite jade figurine from the Württemberg State Museum, objects that have never before been presented in the context of Aztec (Mexica) culture. Alongside these treasures are some stunning artefacts on loan from Mexican and European institutions, including the 1.75m tall statue of Mictlantecuhtli, Lord of the Underworld (pic 1, right). There’s little doubt that, without the feather works, there would be no exhibition...

Pic 2: Teachers on a guided tour of the ‘Azteken’ exhibition
Pic 2: Teachers on a guided tour of the ‘Azteken’ exhibition (Click on image to enlarge)

The exhibition covers 1,200 square metres in 7 large rooms. Whilst all object labels are in German, each room, with a unique theme, has large introductory panels in English and German. Many of these are based on iconography and text from the Codex Mendoza, the intention being, in the words of the director, ‘In contrast to earlier Aztecs exhibitions, “Azteken” will present art and every-day objects in the context of the civilisation’s culture and society; this will allow for a better understanding of the subject.’ On our visit to the Museum shortly after the exhibition opening, we were fortunate both to meet curator Dr. Doris Kurella and to attend a teachers’ preview/guided tour (pic 2).

Pic 3: Much of the wall space contains graphics and text from the Codex Mendoza
Pic 3: Much of the wall space contains graphics and text from the Codex Mendoza (Click on image to enlarge)

An unknown number of Mesoamerican objects in the Museum’s founding inventory - originally collected by 19th century German collector Wilhelm Bauer - were sadly destroyed in allied bombing raids towards the end of the second World War, though some were evacuated for safe-keeping (under the Swedish flag) to Schaubeck Castle in Kleinbottwar two years before. On the positive side, the new exhibition includes several items only recently excavated at the Templo Mayor site in Mexico City. To give one example...

Pic 4: Four large stone slabs in the shape of sacrificial knives, Templo Mayor
Pic 4: Four large stone slabs in the shape of sacrificial knives, Templo Mayor (Click on image to enlarge)

... during excavations in the Sacred Precinct one of four temples discovered, the Templo Rojo Sur, contained a sacrificial box made of volcanic stone. It was given the number 78. Four large stone slabs (pic 4) were placed around it. Two of these slabs show the image of the deity Macuilxochitl-Xochipilli, proving that the ofrenda was laid down for him. Altogether there were 335 objects in the box; the exhibition has on display 82 of these offering artefacts.

Pic 5: Rear view of the greenstone figure of a god, showing a solar disc with representation of the sun god Tonatiuh
Pic 5: Rear view of the greenstone figure of a god, showing a solar disc with representation of the sun god Tonatiuh (Click on image to enlarge)

Undoubtedly one of the ‘stars’ of the exhibition is the mysterious 9-inch-tall greenstone figure of a deity (pix 1, left, & 5), belonging to the Landesmuseum Württemberg (Stuttgart). This unique figure, with inlays of spondylus shell or coral in the mouth, nose and cheeks, ‘probably embodies a nocturnal aspect of the creator god Quetzalcoatl. The shell-shaped earrings and the feathered snake on the back as well as the calendar signs on the headstraps, hands and loincloth, associated with the Venus cycle, indicate this legendary deity’ (exhibition catalogue). As early as 1904 the figure was identified by leading German scholar of his day Eduard Seler as Xolotl, twin brother of Quetzalcóatl and the dark personification of Venus. With close associations linking the two deities, not surprisingly it hasn’t been easy to confirm the figure’s identity.

Pic 6: Light-and-sound projection of the Creation of the Fifth Aztec Sun, ‘Azteken’ exhibition, Linden Museum, Stuttgart
Pic 6: Light-and-sound projection of the Creation of the Fifth Aztec Sun, ‘Azteken’ exhibition, Linden Museum, Stuttgart (Click on image to enlarge)

We were impressed by the entire exhibition, which is highly recommended. A superb international collaborative venture, it gives Europeans a rare opportunity to admire the sophistication and artistic skills of the inhabitants of Mexico on the eve of the Spanish invasion. Hence our surprise on spotting a couple of mistakes! In the atmospheric ten-minute repeating audiovisual telling the story of the creation of the Fifth Sun and the New Fire Ceremony, which helps set the scene for the main exhibition (and which can be heard in English), the third and fourth ‘Suns’ are presented the wrong way round, with the third being called ‘4-Water’ instead of ‘4-Rain’. The sun god is mis-named ‘Toniatiuh’. Calendrical signs are depicted moving clockwise instead of anti-clockwise. Further along we are told that the Mexica left their ancient homeland Aztlan in the year 1064 CE; whilst no-one knows for sure, by far the more common departure date in the literature is 1168 CE - oddly, no mention is made of the uncertainty surrounding this key moment in Aztec history.

Pic 7: Turquoise mosaic Aztec mask with spondylus shell, mother-of-pearl and malachite on a wooden frame, National Museum of Denmark
Pic 7: Turquoise mosaic Aztec mask with spondylus shell, mother-of-pearl and malachite on a wooden frame, National Museum of Denmark (Click on image to enlarge)

These are, of course, minor faults in what clearly is proving a successful exhibition, with very positive local press coverage (compare with the sensationalist criticisms hurled at ‘Aztecs’ at the Royal Academy in London when it opened in late 2002!) As in the UK, the term ‘Mexica’ is now far more widely used, alongside ‘Aztecs’, the Spanish ‘invaded’ rather than conquered, and human sacrifice is presented less provocatively as an ‘ancestor cult’. We wish Azteken every success: after Stuttgart it will head to Vienna in 2020 and subsequently to Leiden (Netherlands) in 2021. Congratulations to all concerned!

Photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Nov 10th 2019

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