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Much of the literature engaging the repatriation of museum collections has focused on claims made by postcolonial nation-states, or by Indigenous communities in settler-colonial contexts such as the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Latin America, specifically, has been relatively absent from these debates because of the enduring legacies of Indigenism as a key politics of nation making, justifying the appropriation of Indigenous cultural production in favor of the nation. The very few instances of repatriation in the region have been negotiated between specific museums and private collectors, who have returned objects to countries of origin, rather than through centralized state-led policies. In even fewer cases, artifacts and human remains have been returned not to national governments but to the communities from which they were removed. In 2022, in an unprecedented act of recognition and restitution within a contemporary Latin American nation, the Chilean National Museum of Natural History returned a Moai, one of Rapa Nui´s iconic stone monuments, to the island.
Against this backdrop, The Contested Crown by Khadija von Zinnenburg Carroll is a welcome attempt to analyze how debates and claims sparked by repatriations worldwide–from the Benin Bronzes to Maori Tonga, to Nazi looted art—could lead European institutions to take action toward the restitution of their holdings from the Americas. The case study selected, the feathered headdress known as the Penacho de Moctezuma, is especially ripe for this investigation. First appearing in the late sixteenth century in the Ambras Castle at Innsbruck (which belonged to the author’s ancestors, as she discloses in the introduction), the Penacho was later incorporated into Vienna’s Museum für Völkerkunde, which eventually became the Weltmuseum Wien. Over the centuries, the Penacho has been the subject of unresolved controversies about whether it in fact ever belonged to the last Aztec emperor; whether it was stolen or gifted and by whom; whether it was a headdress, a mantle, a crown, or another form of regalia; and even whether the surviving artifact could be considered Aztec, given the many reworkings it has been subjected to.
Carroll´s book, however, does not set out to be an in-depth study of this fascinating history, but rather a personal reflection that uses the Penacho and its place in a European collection to critique colonial histories in which the author is herself implicated. As a descendant of Habsburg nobility, her family connection to the Ambras Castle and, thus, to the Penacho’s earliest known European home is central to her investigation. The book argues for a set of moral imperatives with which European museums originating in colonial relations should reckon through a politics of repatriation. This, it argues, should occur regardless of whether provenance can be documented. The author relies on personal history and prosaic narrative to engage emotional responses to colonial violence, proposing an ethics of repatriation that does not rely “solely on scientific facts” (25).
Carroll´s transparency about her family connections to the case is a laudable strategy to reflexively situate the book and its claims. Yet rather than offering privileged access to family archives, she engages in rather superficial conversations with (unnamed) historians who have documented that history. These serve to hint at what she—shockingly—imagines as parallel histories of dispossession faced by her own family and the Penacho. In her words: “This is a project about the process of recovering family history and the objects that embody it. The confusion and shame of not being able to answer a historical expert’s questions about parts of my family in the sixteenth century is the same problem that Mexicans face when they are asked to explain the generations between Motecuhzoma and themselves” (43).
Beyond the problematic nature of comparing the efforts of European nobility to reconstruct family histories and that of the Mexican people dealing with enduring legacies of colonialism, Carroll goes on to compare the Mexican experience with other histories of violence, extermination, and theft by devoting two of the book’s seven chapters to cases of art looted by the Nazis. She uses these as a potential model for codified practices of return based on ethics in the wake of violent dispossession. However, what might have been an interesting historical exploration of the cultural politics of museums in 1930s and 1940s Austria and their aftermaths, and of the particular place that Mexico occupied in that political landscape, amounts instead to a digression that flattens historical and regional specificity.
There is also a fundamental contradiction in Carroll’s book regarding what could have been its most interesting and provocative argument. In chapter 4, “The Real and the Replica,” she shows the rich history of the Penacho´s reproductions (for dance and performance, for Mexican heritage institutions) to challenge the museum world’s interest in authentic and singular “originals,” arguing rather for the affective power of replicas and replication. Yet the book’s insistence on the return of the feathered headdress now in Vienna ends up ossifying heritage institutions’ preservationist logic, through an underlying belief in the ultimate force of an original or “real” Penacho.
As much as one might agree that the Penacho´s return would be an important political act, repatriation necessarily implies pragmatic concerns. There are brief instances where Carroll acknowledges that return is no simple task: “state-owned national heritage like El Penacho is much more difficult to repatriate because of the lack of provenance and the question of whether it should be kept in the Mexico City National Museum of Anthropology” (172). But she never actually explores exactly to whom nor how this repatriation could take place. In many communities in Mexico, for instance, the holdings of the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City are also the result of colonial relations and state-enforced dispossession, naturalized by the Mexican government´s heritage legislation and own internal colonial legacies.
Carroll offers testimonies by a handful of individuals that she glosses as “the Mexican perspective” (177), flattening the diversity of Mexican positions. For example, she portrays a Mexican conservator’s perspective that does not coincide with her own as “disloyal” (123), without any interest in the motivations of those different views. In a personal communication to the reviewer, the Mexican conservator María Olvido Moreno Guzmán (whom Carroll never interviewed), who along with her Austrian counterpart Melanie Korn was responsible for the 2010–12 binational study and restoration of the Penacho, insisted that the team was most concerned with the artifact’s movement and not its travel. Designing the means to transport the Penacho without subjecting it to vibrations that would accelerate decay was in the hands of engineers, not loyal or disloyal conservators. Yet more potently, for Moreno Guzmán the most important restitution might not even be that of the artifact, but of the knowledge acquired through its study that made indigenous techniques and technologies visible for the first time. Returning this knowledge to the many communities who still use featherwork for both artisanal and ritual purposes would be another kind of restitution. Restitution could also entail a multinational project to restore the nearly destroyed ecosystems where the quetzal and other birds whose feathers were used for the Penacho live.
Beyond its disinterest in the complexity of Mexican perspectives, Carroll´s book is riddled with factual errors that go far beyond careless copy editing. For example, it features presidents of Mexico Lázaro “Cárdena” (Cárdenas) (161) and “Filipe Calderon” (Felipe Calderón) (99), and fictional places like the “Palazzo” (Palacio) Nacional (118), and conflates the modern nation-state with the former Aztec Empire (the latter only occupied a fraction of what is now Mexico) (3). The author also misrepresents the Penacho as spanning three meters by four meters (more than twice its actual size) (14).
Even more disturbing is the author’s lack of interest in scholarship on Latin American and Mexican collections—particularly work published by scholars from and based in these places, many of whom have published in English and other languages (for those who do not read Spanish), such as Laura Cházaro, Frida Gorbach, Haydeé López, Federico Navarrete, Johannes Neurath, Mario Rufer, and Adam Sellen, among others. The names of the very few scholars with whom Carroll does engage are muddled beyond recognition: Miruna Archim (Achim) (199, 213, 215), Vincent (Rubén) Gallo (218), Carla Herrara Pratts (Herrera-Prats) (199), and an “expert named Motecuhzoma” instead of Eduardo Matos Moctezuma (one of Mexico’s most important archaeologists) (215). Carroll recasts conservator Lilia Rivero Weber (whom she refers to also as Lilia “Rivera”) as the head of the INAH, Mexico’s national heritage institution (47). She thanks a “Sandra Rozenheim” (199), which I assume is me. Mistakes happen. But this long list of errata reveals the author’s disinterest in Mexico-based interlocutors. How seriously, then, can the reader take Carroll’s ethical arguments on the need to “decolonize” European museums when her own citational politics reinstate the very same epistemic and colonial power relations?
Carroll is not the first to argue for the headdress’s return. Several Mexican presidents, artists, and activists have petitioned the Austrian government for its repatriation for decades. Artists Sebastián Arrechedera and Yosu Arangüena, along with Xokonoschtletl Gómora, most recently hacked the Vienna museum´s audio guides (2022), to voice the demand for return from within the museum. Such projects contest the long-standing claims that returning the Penacho would put it at risk of disintegration. Although the author engages with some of these interventions (Gómora is one of the few people she interviewed), it is unclear why there is no mention of Fran Ilich’s important 2013 transmedia work Raiders of the Lost Crown.
Carroll is herself a practicing artist, and the book relies heavily on her performance The Restitution of Complexity (with Nikolaus Gansterer, 2020). Each chapter begins with images from the piece, calling for the Penacho’s return (in the dust jacket she also appears holding a miniature Penacho askew on her head). Other artists, including Eduardo Abaroa, Mariana Castillo, Pedro Lasch, and Gala Porras-Kim, to name just a few, have also made politically provocative works questioning the place of pre-Hispanic objects in museum collections in Mexico and beyond. Their works, however, are based on rigorous research and in-depth understanding of the local contexts and complexities in which they intervene. They also do not position their artworks as academic interventions.
More than anything, The Contested Crown raises a red flag regarding the state of academic publishing at present, when editors and processes of peer review—even at the most prestigious presses—can show such disregard for academic work in favor of projects framed as “decolonization” that push all the “right” buttons despite being premised on flimsy research and, in fact, reproducing colonial relations by assuming that the sites, objects, languages, and scholarship from the places they study need not be taken seriously. In Carroll’s book, Mexico, its collections, and the people who study them are mere detours to feed personal meditations premised on politically correct and apologetic historical guilt. Let us not confuse that for the real work of questioning and reckoning with the underlying premises that were at the core of, and continue to sustain, colonialism.
Associate Professor, Humanities, Universidad autónoma metropolitana-Cuajimalpa