The feather headdress

Introduction

The famous feather headdress in the Weltmuseum Wien is the last example of its kind in the world. It is therefore of particular relevance as a world cultural heritage. It is still unclear how and when it left Mexico. This page presents contextualizing information in an easily accessible format.

 

Provenance and History

Provenance and History

Prior to the early 16th century, many such magnificent headdresses were in use in Mesoamerica. They were associated with rulers, gods, priests and warriors.

After the conquest of the Aztec Empire between 1519 and 1521, the Spanish sent numerous artifacts to Europe. Although lists of many of these objects have been passed down, the feather headdress cannot be classified among them. Thus, the description of the headdress as a crown or possession of Moctezuma is not reliable.

First in an inventory of the collections of Ambras Castle Innsbruck from 1596 the headdress can be documented with certainty. There it is misleadingly described as a "Moorish hat with long, beautiful, gleaming, green glowing and golden feathers ...".  However, there is no record of how the feather headdress came to Ambras.

In the early 19th century, the headdress was brought to Vienna and exhibited in the Lower Belvedere Palace. Around 1880 it was included in the collections of the Natural History Museum. When, after 1928, an ethnological museum was established in the Neue Burg, the headdress was eventually transferred to it.

 „Mer ain Mörischer Huet von langen schönen gleissenden grienleuchtenden und gulden federn … hat vorn auf der Stirn, ain ganz gulden Schnabel.“

Christian Feest, Der altmexikanische Federkopfschmuck in Europa, in: Haag et al. (Hgg.), Der altmexikanische Federkopfschmuck, Altenstadt 2012, 5.

There is evidence that many such elaborate headdresses were used in different parts of Mesoamerica, especially along the coast and in the south. They were associated with rulers, priests, and warriors. But none of the others has survived.

Condition and Conservation

Condition and Conservation

Today the magnificent appearance of the headdress is deceptive. Looking at it from the back, its precarious state of preservation becomes clear. Aging and damage from previous insect infestations were causes of its fragile condition. But its materials themselves, as well as the construction of the headdress, also contribute to its fragility.

All the materials from which the headdress was originally made are over 500 years old. Some of them are particularly fragile by nature. It consists principally of three delicate nets stabilized by thin wooden rods. At the front, the feathers were attached systematically. The tail feathers of the quetzal bird are very fragile. The long green feathers were attached to the nets in several layers by means of threads not only at the base of the keel, but also to each other, so that the movement of each feather affects the others around it. Over time, many of the tail feathers have broken and lost many of their branches and barbules.

Since its creation, the feather headdress has been modified many times. The first documented conservation work was done in 1878. It was restored with new additions and mounted in a flattened position. In 1992, it was conserved again to improve visible damage to the feathers.

From 2010 to 2012, a bi-national Mexican-Austrian project was carried out to obtain reliable information about the feather headdress. The conservation and study project was born out of a binational desire to display the feather headdress in Mexico. It was undertaken in the hope that the study would reveal ways to make this desire a reality. 

Significant damage was found during the project. At least 170 breaks were detected in the 374 long quetzal feathers of the headdress. The nets were torn in many places and some of the metal ornaments damaged the surrounding material. When the headdress was removed from its mount prior to the conservation project, which was conducted using state-of-the-art techniques, it was discovered that nearly 2,000 feather fragments had broken off and remained on the mount.

Experts on the binational project, both Mexican and Austrian, agreed that the feather headdress was an extremely fragile artifact.

Transportation

Transport

When transporting works of art, they are exposed to various types of stress (e.g. vibrations, shocks, temperature and humidity fluctuations). It is often possible to secure objects against the rigors of transportation. This depends not only on the available technology, but also on the characteristics of the objects themselves. In the case of the headdress, it is practically impossible to implement suitable protection for transport due to its construction and materials.

Both Mexican and Austrian experts agreed during the binational project on the acceleration that the feather headdress could withstand without unacceptable risk of damage. Mexico then asked Prof. Dr. Wassermann (Vienna University of Technology, Institute of Mechanics and Mechatronics) to determine whether it would be possible to transport the headdress without exceeding this value. He determined that transport by the usual means of transport for international loans, motor vehicles and airplanes, would be practically impossible without risk of damage.

 

Request for Return

Request for Return

The headdress is the property of the Republic of Austria, not the Museum. There is no current request from Mexico to permanently return the headdress.

The Mexican government requested that Federal President Alexander Van der Bellen agree to loan the headdress to the National Museum of Anthropology for an exhibition in 2021 celebrating the conquest of the Aztec capital 500 years ago. Due to the extraordinary fragility of the headdress and the likelihood of irreversible damage to the only surviving object of its kind, it was not possible to grant the request.

Further Reading

Further Reading

Gerard van Bussel, Der altmexikanische Federkopfschmuck. Aspekte seiner Rezeptionsgeschichte, in: Sabine Haag et al. (Hgg.), Der altmexikanische Federkopfschmuck. Altenstadt, 2012: 115–134.

Gerard van Bussel, Quetzal Feather Headdress. Wien, 2017.

Christian Feest, Der altmexikanische Federkopfschmuck in Europa, in: Sabine Haag et al. (Hgg.), Der altmexikanische Federkopfschmuck. Altenstadt, 2012: 5–28.

Melanie Korn, Die Farbgebung von Vogelfedern, in: Sabine Haag et al. (Hgg.), Der altmexikanische Federkopfschmuc., Altenstadt, 2012: 95–99.

Mariá Olvido Moreno Guzmán – Melanie Korn, Konstruktion und Techniken, in: Sabine Haag et al. (Hgg.), Der altmexikanische Federkopfschmuck. Altenstadt, 2012: 61–82.

Karl A. Nowotny, Mexikanische Kostbarkeiten aus Kunstkammern der Renaissance im Museum für Völkerkunde Wien und in der Nationalbibliothek Wien. Wien, 1960.

Reneé Riedler et al., A Review of Color Producing Mechanisms in Feathers and their Influence on Preventive Conservation Strategies, in: Journal of the American Institute for Conservation 53/1. 2014: 44–65.

Lilia Rivero Weber, Die Konservierung des altmexikanischen Federkopfschmucks. Zwei Jahre Arbeit der Binationalen Kommission, in: Sabine Haag et al. (Hgg.), Der altmexikanische Federkopfschmuck. Altenstadt, 2012: 135–147.

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