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Moctezuma

The British Museum's current installment of its "Great Leaders of History" series of exhibits, in the old Reading Room, is on Moctezuma. It's a decent show, well-structured and - on many subjects - effectively didactic without being too heavy-handed, but at the same time, i felt the exhibit highlighted the absence of lots of information too. Most notably, I had only the foggiest impressions of what everyday life would have been like in the early sixteenth century for the Mexica generally, or even Moctezuma specifically. What was his residence like? What did he drink when not drinking sacred fermentations? As ruler, "no one" was allowed to touch him, and yet he had nineteen children with his collection of wives.

Instead, the show focuses on a number of specific institutional and political points: Moctezuma's ancestry, religious practice, a very small section on tribute, and an argument - on dark-grey walls - showing that there is some evidence thtat, contrary to the usual version of the story, the Spanish may have killed him. As visitors, we were trained to identify his name glyph, and a variety of significant dates in the Mexica calendar, which begins on One Rabbit. Prickly pear cactuses look like hearts, and were often used almost interchangeably with them for symbolic purposes. Other basic groups were never really defined, particularly groups that the Mexica conquered or worked with.

There were some really nifty objects in the show. The most spectacular were gorgeous pieces worked in turquoise, which was traded from SW North America; or the enormous carved stones, for depositing sacrificial hearts or supporting thrones or altars. There's good variety too, from a turquoise-covered human skull, to a greenstone heart sculpture, to every major related manuscript I've ever heard of from that place and time.

It was functional, useful, and interesting but, ironic as it is to say this about an exhibit with so many hearts in it, I didn't feel that the show really had a heart of its own.