Making its way from Wellington’s Museum of Te Papa Tongarewa is Aztecs – the major exhibition for the Melbourne Museum this year. A truly collaborative project, Aztecs will display more than 200 cultural objects selected by Raúl Barrera from the National Institute of Anthropology and History in Mexico and Lynette Townsend at Te Papa Tongarewa. Many of these objects have only recently been excavated.
“It wasn’t until the 1960s when Mexican archaeologists started excavating the sites that a lot of objects started to be recovered,” says Lynette Townsend. Having compiled an unprecedented number of cultural objects, Townsend’s main focus was to show the everyday lives of the Aztecs.
Poets, sculptors, agriculturalists, educators – this is the history of the Aztecs told as we’ve never heard it before. As an interactive journey, Aztecs is divided into six sections, moving from the origins of the empire to the everyday life of its people, their cultural practices, social structure, religious beliefs and ultimately, destruction at the hands of the Spanish conquistadors.
As visitors walk under a large projection of the sun rising and falling, they’re asked to consider the mindset of the people, and the world in which they lived. The central Mexico of the Aztecs was a place of active volcanoes, flood and drought. Each morning, people anxiously awaited the rising of the sun. Aztec priests believed that they were entrusted to keep their deities satisfied and began offering human lives as payment. “When people realise that the objects they’re looking at were used in human sacrifice – those are powerful pieces,” says Townsend.
While the exhibition doesn’t shy away from the fearsome aspects of Aztec religion, the curators have taken care to delve deeper into the meaning behind these rituals. Glittering mystically from the heart of the exhibition is a formidable replica of the Great Temple, Huey Teocalli. “The temple was the physical and spiritual centre of the Aztec universe,” Townsend explains. “It’s quite a contemplative space – we’ve used it to show the afterlife of the Aztecs.”
The macabre fascination with the Aztec religion is undeniable, but for Lynette Townsend, it is the deeply personal, lovingly crafted treasures that touch her most. “It was quite an emotional response, seeing the objects unpacked. There’s a piece of beautiful jewellery that is made of gold, and depicts the god of music and dance. This god was also the patron god of metal workers, which means that the person who made this piece was re-creating their own patron god. For me, it’s more than just the object – it’s the story behind it, and knowing that those pieces came from 500 years ago.”