Moctezuma Exhibition at the British Museum

So after earlier posting excitedly about this exhibition, I finally got the chance to visit it on Saturday afternoon.

The exhibition is in the now-traditional layout: squashed in a circular arrangement inside the Reading Room – that beautiful space at the centre of the BM’s courtyard. It’s not an ideal exhibition space by any means, and it particularly annoys me that they’ve closed the Reading Room to the public and covered up the beautiful walls, ceilings and fittings that they must have paid tens of thousands of pounds to restore less than ten years ago, but I guess the BM doesn’t have any choice.

Cost is the usual rip-off of £12 adult and £10 student, with an extra £3.50 if you want the audio guide (which once again you’ll need if you really want to make the most out of the exhibition). I personally think the exhibition would have to be astounding to justify this cost, and I find the charge for the audio guide particularly insulting. I’ve said that before, but the promise of such an exciting exhibition on a subject I know so little about was too much of a temptation!

The exhibition itself has a good mixture of large sculptural pieces, codices, and small to medium objects, some of which are outstandingly beautiful and in many ways highly disturbing. One thing to remember is that the exhibition is focussed specifically on Moctezuma, the last ruler of the Aztecs (or Mexica, as the BM says we must now call them). As such don’t expect to learn much about Aztec ways of life, beliefs or any of that jazz.

However, that said, I didn’t really come away with much of an idea of what Moctezuma’s life was really like. Although the interpretation cards for the objects were a notable improvement on the ones I saw at the Hadrian exhibition, they were still short and frequently repetitive.

Interestingly, this view was echoed by my companions, a mixed bunch some of whom had undergraduate history/archaeology experience but all of whom were rather keen on South American cultures in general. We loved the objects, which were beautiful and well worth seeing, but none of it really encouraged you to use your brain. It reminded me a lot of the V&A – a selection of beautiful objects you’re just supposed to stand back and enjoy. Actually, it’s not as bad as V&A exhibitions, there was a reasonable attempt at context, but it was all just rather superficial.

To be honest, I have a limited amount to say about this exhibition. It was rather a bimbo – all chorus no verse. I wanted more, more information, more context, more of the exciting stuff. I know it wasn’t supposed to be about the Aztecs, just about Moctezuma, but I didn’t come away with a good idea of who the man really was. I sort of understand how he appeared to his people, but the BM just didn’t make the interpretive leap to open up who he actually was. Which I acknowledge is really difficult, but surely the BA employs some of the best curators and specialists in the world, capable of challenging work? And I paid £10 to see the exhibition, which means I expect high-quality interpretive work.

Sort of a ‘B-‘ if it were an essay, I feel.