Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Today I attended the press preview of the British Museum’s new exhibition Moctezuma: Aztec Ruler. I have been somewhat underwhelmed by the BM’s series of exhibitions exploring power and empire and this, the fourth in the series, is no different. Moctezuma (that’s the Spanish spelling, which is more accurate than the English ‘corruption’ apparently) emerges as a very insubstantial figure: not even the circumstances of his death are really understood.

A rather embarrassing, much pitied figure in Mexico, his status as a ruler appears to owe a great deal to European ideals of the ‘Noble Savage’. Even so, there are many lovely objects to admire: a delicate obsidian knife (too delicate for human sacrifice); wonderful turquoise masks (though the best is one from the BM’s permanent collection); plus a fascinating model of the sacred centre of Moctezuma’s capital; an array of supremely strange gods; and some very interesting explanations of the Mexica’s highly complex calendar.

‘Mexica?’ you ask. Well that’s the name (pronounced ‘Mesheeka’) that the Aztecs (sorry, Mexica) knew themselves by, as did their Spanish conquerors, and it is, of course, after which Mexico is named. So why is the exhibition called Moctezuma: Aztec Ruler? Presumably because the BM thinks punters won’t know who the Mexica were but will hand over a scandalous £12 (yes, £12!) for the privilege of getting intimate with an Aztec. Then they’ll emerge from the Reading Room having considered the fate of Moctezuma only to be bombarded with stacks of expensive tat, with chocolate to the fore (after all the often patronising audio commentary to the exhibition, with its references to ‘brave Moctezuma’, appears to be aimed at children).

Would it not be better for the BM, an institution I cherish, to charge ALL visitors £2 to enter the permanent exhibitions and, say, £5 to special exhibitions, rather than charge £12 to see a display such as Moctezuma?

The exhibition opens tomorrow.

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