In recent years, Melbourne Museum has offered an annual 'blockbuster' alongside its permanently exhibited state collection. Aztecs visited the touring exhibition hall in 2014 (quietly following the Australian Museum's Inca exhibition). Aztecs offered a kinetic and often imposing interpretation of this indigenous Mexican culture, expressed through massive stone sculptures, vibrant dioramas and soundscapes, and the ritual instruments of human sacrifice.
Aztecs was co-curated (in partnership with Museum Victoria, the Australian Museum and the National Council for Culture and the Arts and the National Institute of Anthropology and History in Mexico) by Lynette Townsend, curator of communities and diversity at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. The institutional elements at the heart of this exhibition's curatorial focus describe current museological approaches to material culture: culturally specific and contextualised, uncovering (or creating) intersections and connections between past and present cultures and places. Aztecs--with its themes of indigenous cosmology, colonial (and internal) violence, engagement with the natural world and continuing cultural importance for indigenous populations--offered insights into these central American people, and also connected with important themes in Melbourne Museum's own First Peoples exhibition in the recently revamped Bunjilaka gallery.
Tension often exists between the touring and permanent exhibits, with visitation to the general museum not necessarily flowing through from the popular 'blockbusters'. Permanent exhibitions are gradually being replenished and updated: these offer both a counterpoint to, and a dialogue with, touring exhibitions. Recent museological practice has sometimes eschewed text-laden interpretation, opting instead for visitor-driven encounters with multimedia and other interactive formats. The First Peoples exhibition, while being object rich, makes effective use of current multimedia technology and interactive elements. Aztecs too featured a rich array of objects (chosen by Mexican archaeologist Raul Barrera), many of which were only recently excavated. Models, multimedia and audio-visual elements enhanced the objects in Aztecs, providing visitors with detailed information about the people who made, used and lived with the objects uncovered by archaeology.
Aztecs greeted visitors with a reclining chacmool figurine, traditionally placed at temple entrances, as guardians and receivers of sacrificial offerings. This placement echoes the central role of religion to Aztec life, which is also present in the exhibition's organisation. Visitors navigate through various galleries featuring both elite and everyday objects, imposing stone sculptures, ritual objects and models. We passed by stone sculptures: these commanding blocks of stone, carved into gods and goddesses, remain essentially elemental: these deities are solid, heavy and grim. Other cases held luxury objects such as gold and turquoise jewellery, and items for daily use, such as cooking utensils. Together with the ritual objects used for sacrificial rites--a particularly impressive one being the black obsidian blade that seemed to devour light--these items told the story of the Aztecs arrival in their 'promised land', and the centrality of religion to all facets of life.
Due to collecting practices, the fetishising of archaeological artefacts as 'art', elite objects make up the bulk of the exhibition. Despite this, an effort was made to present the lower classes through 'utilitarian' ceramics, and the slightly quaint dioramas of floating agricultural areas and a vibrant market scene, complemented by a soundscape featuring voices in the Nahuatl language. This soundscape was recorded in a modern Mexican market, and it is a pleasant surprise to learn that the indigenous Aztec language is still being used. These dioramas and the Spanish coda offered sometimes surprising insights into the lives of non-elite people. Women could gain prestige through excelling at a craft; men similarly through warfare. Other objects revealed less well known aspects of Aztec life: all children received an education when they turned sixteen; Aztecs excavated and curated the objects of cultures in their own historical past; quite aptly, given the love of south America for soccer, they appeared to have 'invented' the rubber ball and an early form of that game.
At the exhibition's centre, visitors were confronted by a large reproduction of the Huey Teocalli temple. This temple was central to both temporal and ritual life (if indeed the Aztecs made any such distinction). It had been built in a sacred place in Tenochtitlan, the Aztec's capital, a location nominated by Huitzilopochtli, the god of war. Inside the temple was evidence of the Aztec's own religious violence, in the form of a sacrificial victim's skull.
Perhaps the most difficult element of Aztec society to comprehend is the sacrifice of children. Aztec sacrifice was conducted according to the requirements of specific deities and special signs: children had to cry on the way to being sacrificed, as it was their tears that symbolised the water given by Tlaloc, god of rain and lightning. Children were not offered or taken indiscriminately, but were signified by a double cowlick in their hair and being born under a favourable sign. Sacrifice was essential to Aztec cosmology: traumatic but absolutely necessary. The gods demanded blood. Sacrificial victims were honoured before their brutal death, a death often softened by hallucinogenic substances.
Ironically, much of our knowledge about the Aztecs comes from the textual and illustrative detail in the Spanish coda produced by priests working with the indigenous population. As with Australian Indigenous cultures, it was often the very people who helped to devastate indigenous cultures that also recorded their history and collected their material culture. The final room focused on Spanish colonial violence, embedded in Catholicism, and the decimation wrought on the Aztec population. This is a conflict site: new worlds and old worlds colliding. Although sometimes apparent in the exhibition's earlier spaces, the Aztec's own internal (if religiously significant and sacred) violence, their own cultural expansion and colonisation of other Mesoamerican populations, received minimal attention. It is perhaps a function of addressing the violence of colonialism that exhibitions featuring indigenous cultures focus on, and celebrate, their capacity to survive despite the decimation they experienced. First Peoples encompasses the violence (both physical and emotional) of the 'Stolen Generation' practices in a reflective space filled with the sculptural forms of empty coolamons, vessels used to carry infants, in an installation by Indigenous artist Robyne Latham. The Aztec culture seems to have been steeped in religiously based violence in a way that Indigenous Australian cultures were not. This paradox of Aztecs being both perpetrators and victims of violence could have been examined further in the exhibition, although it is understandable that it is not.
It is tempting to offer parallels with modern cultures (the exhibition curator spruiked the Aztec's diversity with their deities for gay men and prostitutes in an article (http://dailyreview.crikey.com.au/aztecs-and-diversity-there-was-even-a-god-forgay-men-and-prostitutes/5194); however, this approach can be disingenuous, risking ahistorical and essentialising interpretations that deny both cultural and historical specificity. In doing this, we deny the Aztecs their own integrity, their own imagined and determined pathway through a kinetic, violent and complete world. Aztecs gave visitors insights into an elemental, brutal and sometimes disturbing world. While the violence of Spanish conquest is the exhibition's final note, Aztecs (like First Peoples) also proclaims indigenous cultural survival, especially in the continued use of the Nahuatl language, present both in the exhibition's soundscapes and in modern Mexico.
Larissa Tittl, University of Melbourne