Who’s Afraid of the ‘R’ Word? Moctezuma’s Headdress and the Issue of European Repatriation
by: Sarah Black
Repatriation has been in the news in recent years, and often seems to be a straightforward case of ethics and responsibility. But what happens when a piece of regalia has unproven provenance, physically can't be transported for repatriation, and the museum doesn't legally have to give it back? Welcome to a deep dive into an object currently in a museum’s collection and a reflection on some of the contemporary issues surrounding museum work today. We’ll be turning to the Weltmuseum Wien in Vienna to highlight one of the museum’s most prized—and most controversial pieces in its collection: the quetzal feathered headdress.
Quetzal feather-headdress, Mexico, Aztec, early 16th century © KHM-Museumsverband. Source.
The front of the resplendent feathered headdress. Made in concentric layers arranged in a semi-circle, the smallest layer is made up of the blue tail feathers of the lovely cotinga. Behind it, a layer of red roseate spoonbill feathers, followed by small green quetzal feather, and then another layer of the white tipped brick-red tail feathers of the squirrel cuckoo. There are then three bands of small gold plates that separate the final two layers of over 400 enormous vibrant green quetzal tail feathers from the rest of the headdress. The entire piece is 1.16 m long by 1.75 m wide, and weighs only 1 kilogram. (Weltmuseum Wien, n.d.)
Eagle-eyed readers might notice that while the title of this particular post includes the
name of Moctezuma II, the Aztec Emperor who made first contact with Hernán Cortés and his conquistadors, the Weltmuseum Wien does not recognize Moctezuma as the originator of this headdress. In fact, there is no written record of this headdress even existing until 1596, where it appeared in the collection of Ambras Castle seemingly out of nowhere (Weltsmuseum Wien, n.d.). Mexican officials even concede to the fact that it is very unlikely that Moctezuma even wore it prior to its arrival in Europe. Despite this, Mexico remains firm in its belief that the headdress belonged to the former emperor and, because it is the last of
its kind in the world, it belongs back in its homeland of Mexico. The Weltmuseum Wien and
the Austrian government have remained equally firm in their decision to keep the piece to themselves.
This image in the Codex Cozcotzin—a precolumbian Aztec manuscript—shows another Aztec emperor wearing a headdress and battle standard that very closely resembles the quetzal headdress in the museum’s possession today, setting a precedent for Aztec emperors to wear such pieces. Unfortunately, we cannot say for certain that Moctezuma ever wore this headdress, or even owner it prior to its transfer to Europe. (Bibliothèque Nationale de France: Gallica, n.d.)
Repatriation Frustration: A Museum’s Biggest Nightmare
So why is the museum so staunchly against returning the headdress to Mexico? There
are actually several official reasons: it is said that the emperor gave it as a gift to Cortés prior to its appearance in any official inventory, and thus there is no obligation to return it (Carroll 2022, 86); the object itself is incredibly fragile, and there is currently no technology available to safely transfer it across the Atlantic (Weltsmuseum Wien, n.d.; Michalska 2023); and that the entire headdress is a living Ship of Theseus—after so much reconstruction and preservation, how much of the headdress can be considered “original?”(Carroll 2022, 96).
Those of you familiar with critical museology will recognize that the numerous refusals
to return the headdress, paired with the list of reasons why it cannot be returned, is endemic of a larger problem in Europe. Indeed, institutions all across the continent have resolved to never even entertain the thought of repatriating objects acquired through dubious means. So again, the question is: why won’t they return these objects?
One answer is that they simply don’t have to. While the 1954 Hague Convention (and
subsequent 1970 UNESCO and 1995 UNIDROIT Conventions) attempted to at least introduce the idea of repatriation to nations holding unethically acquired cultural heritage, the conventions were not legally binding. What’s more is that even if they were ratified, they were not retroactive (Feest 1995, 34). Essentially this meant that any object acquired prior to 1970—say, for example, an Aztec headdress acquired in 1596—fell outside of the scope of the conventions. These nations are under no obligation to return these objects, and when they have something as rare as the last remaining Aztec feather headdress, it’s no wonder why they want to hold on so tightly!
Another reason is that European institutions like the Weltmuseum Wien fear that such a large return will “open Pandora’s box,” leading to an avalanche of heritage claims that would effectively drain the museum of its contents (Losson 2021, 379-380). Of course, this is an unfounded fear, as none of the countries seeking repatriation have ever expressed wanting every single piece of cultural heritage returned. Indeed, these nations recognize that having cultural heritage in institutions all over the world fosters a greater understanding of their culture (Losson 2021, 384-385). Unfortunately, Europeans believe that the European way—which is to say, taking everything and leaving nothing behind—is the only way that repatriation can operate, and they are not eager to change their stance on the matter.
Reverse of the quetzal feather headdress © KHM-Museumsverband. Source.
The backside of the quetzal feathered headdress. From this angle, the fragile nature of the crown can be fully observed. Broken stems, shredded netting, worn leather, and extremely old and distressed feathers mean that it is very difficult—nearly impossible—to move the headdress more than a few feet. (Weltmuseum Wien, n.d.)
Just A Lost Hat Looking for its Home
And so, Moctezuma’s headdress, and hundreds of objects like it, remain in an eternal state of alienation. The source nation demands for its return, only to be shut down by the host nation. It’s a story that has played out for thousands of years, and will likely continue to be that way until there are major reforms in the way we deal with highly contentious heritage. Until that day comes, the headdress will remain within the Weltmuseum Wien, completely stationary, to dazzle all those who come to view it.
Want to learn more about what’s going on with Moctezuma’s headdress, or just European repatriation in general? Be sure to check out the readings and images that aided in the writing of this week’s post:
Carroll, Khadija von Zinneburg. 2022. “The View from the Vitrine.” In The Contested Crown:
Repatriation Politics Between Europe and Mexico, 83-108. Chicago: University of
“Codex Cozcatzin.” Bibliothèque Nationale de France: Gallica, n.d.
“The Feather Headdress.” Weltmuseum Wien, n.d.
Feest, Christian F. 1995. “‘Repatriation’: A European View on the Question of Restitution of
Native American Artifacts.” European Review of Native American Studies 9 (2): 33-42.
Losson, Pierre. 2021. “Opening Pandora’s Box: Will the Return of Cultural Heritage Object to
their Country of Origin Empty Western Museums?” The Journal of Arts Management,
Law, and Society 51, no. 6 (July): 379-392.
Michalska, Magda. 2023. “The International Dispute over Moctezuma’s Headdress.” Daily Art
Magazine, August 5, 2023.
Mikanowski, Jacob. 2017. “The Fight to Bring Home the Headdress of an Aztec Emperor.”
Atlas Obscura, September 26, 2017.