The Contested Crown: Repatriation Politics between Europe and Mexico

This review will appear in the Vol. 29 No. 1 / Spring-Summer 2022 issue of West 86th.

The Contested Crown: Repatriation Politics between Europe and Mexico
Khadija von Zinnenburg Carroll
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2022. 239 pp., 20 b&w ills.
Cloth $27.50

Few Mexican objects in European collections have been more contested than the so-called penacho de Moctezuma, a feather headdress on display at the Weltmuseum in Vienna. While its original use has been subject to controversy—was it a headdress or a banner? did it even belong to Moctezuma?—as are the circumstances under which it left Mexico—was it a gift to Hernán Cortés? is it even possible to speak of gift giving in the context of the conquest of Mexico?—there is some consensus about its European biography. The penacho possibly appears in a list of objects that Cortés sent to Carlos V from Mexico. By the late sixteenth century, it figures in the inventory of the Wunderkammer at Ambras Castle at Innsbruck, where it is described as a “Moorish hat”—“Moorish” functioning as a marker of the exotic; it was displayed side by side with naturalia and artificialia. By the end of the nineteenth century, it was integrated into Vienna’s natural history collection, then decades later into the Museum für Völkerkunde, renamed as Weltmuseum Wien in 2013.1 Over the centuries and in the course of its various moves, the penacho has deteriorated: its gorgeous blue quetzal and cotinga feathers have turned brittle, the golden bird mask at its center has been melted, and many of its gold disks and half-moon embellishments have been lost. It has undergone various restorations, most recently by a binational commission led by María Olvido Moreno Guzmán and Melanie Korn, between 2010 and 2012.

As an object of art and science and as a museum collectible, the penacho has inhabited various physical and conceptual spaces—in this way, much like other objects of pre-Hispanic Mexico that have become part of collections on both sides of the Atlantic. At the same time, at least since the middle of the nineteenth century, the penacho, which was associated with royalty and divinity in ancient Mexico, came to embody power, authority, and sovereignty. By Mexican law, it is, like all pre-Hispanic antiquities, unalienable national patrimony.2 The penacho’s two identities, as museum object, on the one hand, and as a political symbol, on the other, are incommensurable.3 As early as the 1860s, Maximilian, the ill-fated Habsburg emperor on the Mexican “throne,” sought to repatriate the penacho, which he believed would have afforded him the badges of rulership and presented him as an heir to the Aztec emperors in the eyes of his subjects.4 His request was denied, although the effort to bring the penacho back to Mexico was taken up again and again, both by Mexican officials (most recently in 2022, by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador) and by civil associations. The demand has been repeatedly denied, which has resulted in mounting diplomatic tensions between Austria and Mexico. The Viennese museum’s refusal is based on essentially two grounds: first, because they claim the penacho arrived in Austria as a gift, and second, because of its putative fragility, rendering it unable to withstand transport, as determined by its latest restoration.5

In The Contested Crown, Khadija von Zinnenburg Carroll enters this conceptually, legally, and symbolically fraught space to deliver a plea for the penacho’s repatriation to Mexico. Technicalities, such as the penacho’s fragility or its property status, Carroll insists, are often used to disguise political questions. “Facts” have served to justify holding on to looted artifacts or to artifacts acquired under asymmetrical arrangements of power, reinforcing those very arrangements and leading to the further disenfranchisement of Indigenous peoples across the globe. In the end, Carroll avers, it does not matter if the penacho were to crumble on its westward voyage across the Atlantic: “Arguably, if every feather of El Penacho were to disintegrate on the way to Mexico, and those fragmented pieces were all that Mexicans would have, is it for those in Vienna to decide?” (179). She does, however, believe, based on her conversations with Mexican engineer Alejandro Ramírez, that it is possible to build some type of chamber to cancel out vibrations and thus prevent the object’s disintegration. (Other engineers, such as Marcelo López, whom Carroll does not name, disagree.6) Keeping the penacho in Vienna reenacts the gesture of colonial appropriation that brought it there in the first place; returning it to Mexico would acknowledge its agency as an object capable of mobilizing intense affectivity. Feathers, Carroll insists, over and over, are not meant to remain static in a vitrine but to move. These are points worth engaging with, if only Carroll’s sense of urgency were matched by the historical and ethnographic sensibility one would expect in a book published as part of a series on cultural anthropology. But all too often, and especially when it comes to Mexican culture and history, her observation that facts have often gotten in the way of repatriation becomes an excuse for writing as if facts simply do not matter, as if facts can be collected and bent to one’s will to write whatever kind of story one wishes.

Like the penacho, Carroll is herself a contested identity. Her book is stitched together from her personal inclinations, intellectual interests, and professional ambitions, which makes it difficult to summarize. She is a highly regarded art historian: the chair of Global Art at the University of Birmingham and a professor at Central European University. Her interest in the penacho’s trajectory and transformations are an expression of her wider professional and research interests. But it is a more personal narrative that she weaves in this book, as told from the history of the object. Carroll is, as she discloses in the book’s very first pages, a Habsburg by way of her maternal line, which she draws back to Philippine Wesler, Freiherrin von Zinnenburg, wife of Frederick II, and owner of the Ambras Castle, where the penacho was held over various centuries and where Carroll returns in the course of her research. “I went to the Ambras Castle,” she writes, “to find out where we were from. ‘We’ being myself and the penacho, which had already started to take hold in my imagination as the character of a book” (42). The Contested Crown thus tells the entangled story of a person and an object, and there are moments when one wonders if the penacho is anything more than a character in a Bildungsroman of sorts, where the narrator, increasingly aware of her colonial ancestors’ sins, has set about to expiate them.

Carroll’s Habsburg descent offers plenty of opportunity for self-reckoning. German dominions in Venezuela in the sixteenth century tie ownership of the penacho directly with slave enterprises (chapter 2). Furthermore, Carroll confesses to additional guilt as a descendent, on the other side of her family, of European settlers in Australia. She builds her case for the penacho’s repatriation based on her experience with the vibrant Indigenous rights movement in Australia. And here the question arises if the politics of return can be generalized, without homogenizing the category of the Indigenous or without assuming that the contemporary Mexican state is a direct heir of pre-Hispanic Indigenous statehoods—precisely the narrative that has been put forth by the Mexican state itself over the past century. The fact that Carroll has very little to say about who the penacho should be delivered to, once it arrives in Mexico, is in itself symptomatic of her superficial understanding of Mexican cultural politics today. After all, the Mexican state and the national museums built to house the objects that are deemed to be national patrimony have also operated as colonial agents and contributed to the dispossession of Indigenous communities. Also lacking is Carroll’s reconstruction of the legal history of the return of Nazi lootings to Jewish heirs (chapter 5) as it applies to the penacho’s repatriation: returning stolen property to descendants of family members killed in concentration camps is not the same as returning looted objects to an abstract entity, Mexico, which was constructed in the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. To suggest continuities between the penacho’s sixteenth-century owners and the contemporary Mexican state is to naturalize a kind of racial essence that was produced both by amalgamating Mexico’s ethnic and racial diversity and by marginalizing certain groups from this mix.

At the same time, Carroll is an activist and performer who has participated in conchero ceremonies (dances that feature feather regalia that replicate the penacho) in front of the Weltmuseum. Side by side with fellow protesters, she has demanded the penacho’s restitution while impersonating Moctezuma, Cortés, and Quetzalcóatl, the feathered serpent of Aztec mythology associated with the penacho. In the performance, she intoned: 

I am Quetzalcóatl, two sides, two eyes, both Moctezuma and Cortez. . . . I am Quetzalcóatl, the feathered serpent . . . Quetzal, Quetzalcóatl, Quetzal (31).

In a book that strongly condemns the appropriation of Indigenous objects, Carroll’s embrace of “native” ritual and her lending her voice so Quetzalcóatl can speak through her are, by her definition, acts of appropriation.7 Throughout the book, she recounts her dashes off to Mexico to perform with concheros, to conduct quick interviews with a few historians and cultural figures, to observe amantecas (feather artisans) at work, and to gather fleeting impressions on Mexican culture, history, and politics.

It is this whirlwind engagement with Mexico that leads to egregious mistakes. Some of these involve Mexican names, which gives the unfortunate impression that the author cares so little about the people or places she writes about that she cannot bother to spell them correctly. For example, she writes about Lázaro Cardena (161; correctly, Cárdenas), president between 1934 and 1940, about Filipe (90; correctly, Felipe) Calderón, president between 2006 and 2012, and about the Palazzo Nacional (118; correctly, Palacio Nacional), the National Palace, the seat of the federal government. She bizarrely dubs the Aztec ruler Motecuhzoma “el Magnífico” (55), an honorific he has never been granted before but one that fits with the palazzo. We also learn that Vincent Gallo, the actor of Buffalo 66, has added another feather to his cap as author of a book on Sigmund Freud and Mexican antiquities (218; Carroll means Mexican art historian Rubén Gallo, in fact). 

More troubling is the wide array of fallacies of different degrees. She describes quetzal feathers as red, supposedly symbolic of the spilled blood of Aztec warriors (14; quetzal feathers are blue-green). She reports that the penacho “spans 3 meters by 4 meters” (14; which would be 118 by 157 inches, when the actual object measures approximately 55 by 72 inches; her erroneously inflated dimensions would have made it impossible for anyone to don and perform ritual dances wearing the penacho). She identifies Teotihuacan as the capital of the Mexica Empire (10; the capital is Tenochtitlan). She suggests that the Aztec Empire is now Mexico (10; a suggestion that would have certainly pleased the imperialist Mexicas). She informs us that “the communist party forbade public worship in Mexico” (113; the communist party has never been in a position to forbid anything in Mexico). She mistakenly promotes people to high institutional posts (as she does with Lilia Rivero Weber, whom she identifies, strangely and wrongly, as the head of the National Institute for Anthropology and History [INAH]), while demoting others, especially when their views on the penacho do not align with her own. This is grievously the case in her references to “an archaeologist named Montezuma” (123) or sometimes, “Motecuhzoma” (115); here Carroll is referring to, without ever actually naming, Eduardo Matos Moctezuma, emeritus director of the Templo Mayor, which houses some of the most important collections associated with the ancient Mexica capital, Tenochtitlan. She also uses the phrase “disloyal conservator”(123) to describe, without naming directly, María Olvido Moreno Guzmán, one of the two top specialists who participated in the restoration commission and who came to believe, in the process, that the penacho should remain in Vienna. Carroll’s dismissal of Moreno Guzmán’s three years of work on the penacho—which resulted not only in the object’s restoration but also in great strides in knowledge about pre-Hispanic techniques of feather working—is especially unfair and cavalier.8

In the eighteenth century, Creole intellectuals began compiling lists of erroneous information that was being published and circulated about Mexico, especially on the other side of the Atlantic. The point was not to produce lists for their own sake but rather to intervene in a larger “dispute of the New World” and to debate who could speak on behalf of local realities and shape local political agendas.9 As they denounced the quickly collected and many times wrong or superficial impressions made by travelers, they saw such errors as part of larger structural arrangements. This situation pitted New World Creoles, who had spent years studying their natural and social environments, against rash newcomers or, what they called, armchair scientists. This dynamic is still often in place today, as The Contested Crown shows.

The biggest shortcoming of Carroll’s book is not the mistakes that could be ultimately fixed by an errata but her obliviousness or indifference to the local political and cultural densities that would make it possible to understand the stakes of the penacho’s return. Instead, her interviews and participant observations yield one-dimensional characters: animist Mexican museum visitors (127) and meek amantecas, who “lower their eyes with humility” (130) when talking with her, engineers whose “elegant formulas” show that the penacho can be moved versus disloyal restorers, Mexican scientists versus villainous and condescending Austrian museum authorities, who prohibit the former from even touching the penacho (121).10 While, as an author, Carroll allows herself the opportunity to slip between identities and even take on the identity of a Mexican god (all the while rarely reflecting on the kind of privilege that allows her to do so), she concludes that the penacho stands “powerfully” (99) for Mexican identity, based on an image of a Mexico frozen in time and strangeness, uncertain about its present. There is no better summary of this exotic Other than her following sketch of the city center, where the repeated use of the passive voice erases agency and evokes a kind of magical spectacle, where things happen by themselves:

Just outside the Palazzo Nacional, interpreters of Mexican culture gather to perform variations on the theme of “feather headdress as index of precontact” spiritual power. Copales are smoked. Rituals are enacted. Dances are danced. Feather headdresses are displayed, performed. Down a street, you can find a woman on stilts wearing a headdress made of painted wood. She beckons passersby into a store while teetering on her extended legs, as if a step from past to present is a wobbly one for her. Her Penacho is enormous but somehow she manages to balance. People stand around filming her, watching her in awe (119).

Ultimately, The Contested Crown doubles as a Wunderkammer of the kind the Habsburgs put together at Ambras Castle: the book does not hold objects but dizzying displays of people and places, ripped from their contexts and hollowed out of meaning; scenes created expressly to be gawked at, often lacking in factual accuracy. Why let facts get in the way of a good story of redemption.

Miruna Achim is an associate professor at the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana-Cuajimalpa in Mexico City. Her research focuses on the history of science, medicine, and technology. Her book, From Idols to Antiquity: Forging the National Museum of Mexico (University of Nebraska Press, 2017), received the 2018 prize for the best book on the history of collecting by the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia.

  1. 1 For a detailed and informed account of the penacho and its trajectory as a museum object and as an object of study, see Christian Feest, “El penacho del México antiguo en Europa,” in El penacho del México antiguo, ed. Sabine Haag, Alfonso de Maria y Campos, Lilia Rivero Weber, and Christian Feest (Vienna: CONACULTA-INAH, Museum für Völkerkunde, 2012), 5–28. The reference to the “Moorish hat” and its implications are on page 5.
  2. 2 Sandra Rozental, “On the Nature of Patrimonio: ‘Cultural Property’ in Mexican Contexts,” in The Routledge Companion to Cultural Property, ed. Haidy Geismar and Jane Anderson (London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2017), 237-57.
  3. 3 For various discussions of the penacho’s different identities, see Haag et al., El penacho del México antiguo.
  4. 4 Miruna Achim, From Idols to Antiquity: Forging the National Museum of Mexico (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2017), 241.
  5. 5 Renée Riedler, Melanie Korn, Johann Wassermann, and María Olvido Moreno Guzmán, “Should Feathers Fly? Risks and Challenges Concerning Feathers in Motion,” in Material in Motion: Preprints; 10th North American Textile Conservation Conference, November 16th–20th 2015, New York, New York, ed. Howard Sutcliffe and Beth Szuhay (New York: North American Textile Conservation Conference, 2015), 203–18.
  6. 6 María Olvido Moreno Guzmán, personal communication with the reviewer, February 5, 2022.
  7. 7 See also Philip Deloria, Indians in Unexpected Places (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004).
  8. 8 María Olvido Moreno Guzmán and Melanie Korn, “Las restauraciones históricas del Penacho del México Antiguo,” in México: Restauración y protección del patrimonio cultural, ed. Olimpia Niglio (Rome: Aracne Editrice, 2015), 1:225–46.
  9. 9 Antonello Gerbi, The Dispute of the New World: The History of a Polemic (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1973).
  10. 10 Moreno Guzmán has insisted that only the two top restorers—herself and Melanie Korn—ever touched the penacho and did so in the context of procedures where both restorers were always present (personal communication with the reviewer on February 5, 2022).

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