The director of the Vienna Museum of Art History defends that it is possible to “share” the Mesoamerican treasure “without moving it” due to its fragile state
About 500 years ago, a feathered headdress, made with pieces of gold, left Mexica territory and, in some way that experts still do not know for sure, arrived in Austria. “The great Moctezuma (…) gave little gold things and three loads of blankets rich in feathers,” wrote the conqueror Bernal Díaz de Castillo, who arrived in those lands with Hernán Cortés in 1519. Although it is not safe that this piece, known as the Moctezuma plume, was in that shipment. The journey that the Mesoamerican treasure made until it reached the collection of Archduke Ferdinand II, where it was located almost 80 years after the Spanish took over the Aztec empire, is still a mystery to scientists. The truth is that five centuries later, the object is exhibited inside a sealed showcase in Vienna more than 10,000 kilometers from the North American country, like thousands of other ancient artifacts scattered abroad. Since 2011, some 45,000 Mexicans have visited it for free, according to museum data.
The Mexican Government has claimed on different occasions the archaeological piece of enormous cultural and political value. The last time was on October 12, when the historian Beatriz Gutiérrez Müller asked the current Austrian president, Alexander Van der Bellen, entrusted by her husband, Andrés Manuel López Obrador. The president acknowledged that recovering the “looted” patrimony was an “almost impossible mission” because, according to him, “they have completely appropriated it.” “And it is really an impossible mission, but there are options to share cultural heritage without having to move it”, defends Sabine Haag, director of the Museum of Art History in Vienna, on which the World Museum depends, where the headdress remains. Haag responds to EL PAÍS from Vienna, together with the curator of the North and Central American collections of the World Museum, Gerard Van Bussel: “If you move it, it will be damaged and nobody wants that.”
Question. What makes the plume so fragile?
Gerard van Bussel. First of all, its age: it is probably over 500 years old. In addition, it is made mainly of organic material, such as feathers, and has more than 1,500 small pieces of gold and silver. These organic and inorganic materials rub against each other. In all these years it has become really fragile.
P. What is the importance of the plume within the museum’s permanent collection?
Sabine Haag. It is one of the icons of the World Museum. It is very popular. The old plume is perhaps he object within the collection.
P. Do you think you will be able to return to Mexico at some point?
Sabine Haag. Our responsibility is to care for the piece and preserve it, to show it to the public, not only to this generation, but also to future generations. Between 2010 and 2012, the binational team that studied the object agreed that, for now, unless you can teleport it, as in Star Trek, the artifact cannot move. We do our best to publicize it and make it accessible. And we do it in contact with our colleagues and friends in Mexico, to share it without having to move it.
P. Should I go back?
Sabine Haag. That is a different question. The point is: it cannot move. Answering that question would be talking about a possibility that does not exist. We have not even moved it to the galleries where the sample on the Aztecs is exhibited [que se inauguró este mes]. Have you had a chance to see the original? When you stand in front, it is a magical moment. When you look at the plume through the glass it is possible to see its fragility.
Gerard van Bussel. The stakes are too high. Right now, we can’t move it because we can’t compensate for vibrations by road, by air, or across the Atlantic. The feathers are really worn. Especially the long quetzal feathers, which are very delicate. We made a special display case to preserve it and, for example, if there is an earthquake in Vienna, the box compensates for the vibrations and the plume does not move.
P. Couldn’t it move inside that box across the Atlantic?