Moctezuma at the British Museum
Mexico does not maintain much of an art criticism culture. Major gallery or museums shows are often previewed and promoted in the press, but trends or icons in art are rarely examined under the microscope of critical analysis. This helps explain why there is virtually no talk in Mexico right now on “Moctezuma, Aztec Ruler,” a mega-exhibit on the last emperor of pre-Hispanic Mexico which recently opened at the British Museum in London. I can only imagine what informed Mexicans might think of this interpretation of their cultural patrimony based on the curious video previews the British Museum has produced for its opening. Watch for yourself above. Where are all those unusual yelps, hisses, and whistles coming from? Why is the announcer speaking in a tone that evokes a trailer for a summer action flick?
Check out a second video made to promote the Moctezuma show. The yelps and “exotic” “Indian” noises are more subdued, but that sensationalist tone remains. Worse, pyramids that appear before an ephemeral sunset are actually the remaining structures at Teotihuacan, capital of a civilization that preceded the Aztecs by hundreds of years — having no connection to the reign or world of Moctezuma II.
That’s a gross historical inaccuracy, but when Hilton hotels are offering a package deal to get you to London to see the show and buy its souvenirs, a little embellishment or factual blurring can’t hurt anyone, right?
Wrong. This is blatant orientalizing of the history of the Aztecs in laughable and almost offensive strokes. No one knows what the Aztecs sounded like — I mean, if they shrieked for any reason in this incomprehensible way — because, as The New York Times reviewer noted on Friday, “When a culture has been wiped out, its architecture destroyed and its elite murdered, its material remains no longer talk.”
And if a culture’s material remains cannot talk, then there’s no way they can answer myopic neo-colonial views such as those of Boris Johnson in The Telegraph, who more or less argues that the arrival of the Spaniards was good for the Aztecs because the Aztecs were unholy savages who performed ritual human sacrifice. It’s a skewed and perverse moral comparison — taking zero account for even a fraction of the atrocities inflicted upon people around the planet during the British Empire. (This type of reaction to the Moctezuma show, by the way, is widely held in mainstream British media.)
It’s safe to assume I won’t be jetting off to London one of these days and rush over to the British Museum to see this show. History is best consumed from its sources or from trustworthy custodians. The potential pitfalls are otherwise so stark and, sadly, so common. While five centuries ago an empire might meet another on the field of battle, today, one empire’s history is routinely shaven, edited, and embellished by another, unable to protest the manner of its presentation, silenced within the pristine spaces of a “blockbuster” museum show.
But don’t forget, you can take the abuse home — in catalogue form — for just 40 British pounds. We’ll keep you posted on any archeological breakthroughs on the home-front that verify whether Moctezuma II ever squealed from the top of his shimmering palaces: “Acheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee! Esu, Esu!“
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