Our #ReadUCP Twitter book club is back! In March we read The contested crown: politics of repatriation between Europe and Mexico by Khadija von Zinnenburg Carroll. In The disputed crown, von Zinnenburg Carroll meditates on the case of a spectacular feather headdress that would have belonged to Montezuma, the last emperor of the Aztecs. Both a biography of a cultural object and a history of collection and colonization, this book offers an artist’s look at the creative potential of repatriation. Carroll compares the Holocaust and colonial ethical claims, and she considers the relationship between Indigenous peoples, international law and museums amassing global treasures, the importance of copies and how conservation science shapes collections . Illustrated with diagrams and rare archival documents, this book brings together world history, European history and material culture around this fascinating object and debates on repatriation.
Below is a brief snippet of the book’s introduction, and since we know you’ll want to know more, you can use the code READUCP to purchase the book from our website for 30% off. Then, mark your calendars to join our Twitter Book Club Meet-up with the author for a Q&A on March 31 at 2:00 p.m. CT. Just follow the hashtag #ReadUCP.
In a crypt beneath the Hofburg Palace in Vienna, which now houses some of the city’s major museums, is the storage area for less sensitive materials from their collections. Among them, several Aztec stone sculptures are assembled on temporary metal supports. Curled up on a shelf is the feathered serpent deity Quetzalcóatl, the geometry of his scales and plumage deeply incised in stone. The stone eﬃgies are unaffected by the humidity of the underground passages and the catacombs are rarely visited.
In Mexico, underground civic structures are romanticized as part of an older world, submerged beneath the modern. In Aztec philosophy, it is the realm of Mictlāntēcuhtli, lord of the deepest region of the underworld, the last level in which the dead dwell. In Vienna, these spaces have diﬀerent associations. The basement below the palace was once part of a central underground corridor, connecting a city once used by the Nazis. A few floors up, the sound of classical string instruments echoes from the walls; but underground, these hidden passageways have witnessed many murders. The ring of boots on the cobblestones lingers. It is always dark in this subterranean layer of Vienna. Some nights are darker than others; but even the darkest night cannot provide such effective cover as an underground passage, as the Viennese have long known. In the past, they built passages large enough to accommodate a carriage drawn by two horses, to transport the royal family from the center of the city to safety in times of crisis. Over the centuries, the top brass of society have been able to escape the wrath of the masses by using these same avenues. Opposite the museum is another node of the underground network, located under the parliament building, crowned by sculpted chariots drawing eight winged Nikes. During their restoration, the sculptures were x-rayed, revealing that the bellies of the horses were full of the corpses of dead birds. Doves had nested in the cavities of the carved entrails of the horses, and the acid produced by the excrement of the dead corroded the carvings inside. Conservators removed the remains of the doves amid the stench of rot, and the monumental horses and winged figures that mark the site of the Viennese parliament have been restored.
Opposite these sculpted figures is the balcony of the Hofburg Palace, from where Hitler delivered his annexation speech to a crowded Heldenplatz (Heroes’ Square) on March 15, 1938. This is where my story begins, although it will go back and forth in time and space between the Aztec Empire (now Mexico) and Europe, its timeline spanning five hundred years of history embodied in the five hundred feathers that make up a headdress (also called a crown since the 20th century). ). The headdress is housed in the Hofburg Palace, and this unique ancient Aztec artifact symbolizes the repatriation debates that unfold in this book. Prize of the Spanish conquest over the Aztec Empire in the 16th century, El Penacho is a treasure that troubles the Ethnographic Museum of Vienna1. Too valuable and, according to some, too fragile to be returned, it has become so famous through protests demanding its repatriation that it now overshadows Mexican-Austrian relations.
Today, the feather headdress is on display at the Welt Museum; formerly called Museum für Völkerkunde, which has occupied part of the Hofburg Palace since 1928. In the museum’s kaleidoscope of great halls of colored marble, the gallery in which the headdress was most recently displayed is a dark labyrinth, with the showcase containing the feather cap in its center. Often when I linger here a visitor asks me, “How did the last remaining Aztec feather crown come to Vienna?”
Hofburg Palace was the seat of the Habsburgs in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Austria’s brief reign over Mexico in the 1860s, little known internationally, is an episode in 19th century colonial history that highlights the fragility of any crown. When the Habsburg crown fell in Mexico, it became confused with the crown of feathers that symbolizes the Aztec monarch, Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin (Motecuhzoma the Younger, 1466-1520). A ceremonial headdress rather than a crown, it was taken after Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin was assassinated during the invasion by Hernán Cortés, the infamous conquistador who led the Spanish forces to conquer the capital of the Aztecs, present-day Mexico City .
In the 16th century, the Habsburg Empire stretched across Europe, from Austria to the Netherlands and Spain, Bohemia, parts of Hungary, Croatia, Silesia. Through this network, formed by Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, artifacts from the New World entered Europe through ports such as Antwerp. Although the Habsburg Empire included Madrid, these artifacts arrived directly at Ambras Castle in Innsbruck, the home of Charles’s nephew Ferdinand II, an avid art collector. In popular imagination, Ferdinand’s cousin Maximilian, Habsburg Emperor of the short-lived Second Mexican Empire from 1864 to 1867, sent the headdress to Vienna. In fact, Maximilian did not arrive in Mexico until three hundred years after the departure of the feather headdress. This erroneous provenance speaks volumes about the lingering presence of colonialism in Mexican-Austrian relations.
The supposed connection between hairdressing history and Maximilian is just one of a surreal but passionate set of associations that bind Mexicans and Austrians today.
Khadija von Zinnenburg Carroll is an Austrian-Australian artist and historian. She is the Global Art Chair at the University of Birmingham and a professor at the Central European University. She is the author of Colonial art, The importance of being anachronistic, botanical driftand Bordered lives.