The feather headdress

Introduction

The famous quetzal feather headdress in the Weltmuseum Wien is the last of its kind. It is therefore of particular significance as world cultural heritage. It remains unclear exactly how and when it left Mexico. Here you can find answers to some of your questions about it and its history.

 

Provenance and History

Provenance and History

Before the early 16th century, many such headdresses were used in Mesoamerica, especially along the coast and in the south. They were associated with rulers, gods, priests, and warriors.

After the conquest of the Aztec Empire between 1519 and 1521, the Spanish sent many artifacts to Europe. Although lists of many of these objects have survived, the feather headdress cannot be identified among them. Thus, the description of the headdress as a possession of Moctezuma cannot be confirmed.

The headdress was first mentioned in writing in an inventory from 1596 of the collections of Ambras Castle in Innsbruck. There it is misleadingly described as a "Moorish hat with long, beautiful, gleaming, green glowing and golden feathers ...".  Although the headdress was presumably acquired by Archduke Ferdinand II of Tyrol, there is no record of how he obtained it and when 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 became part of the collections of the newly-founded Natural History Museum. When, after 1928, an ethnological museum was established in the Neue Burg – today the Weltmuseum Wien – the headdress was transferred to it.

 

Although there once were many such feather headdresses from Mesoamerica, none of them, other than the one in Vienna, 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 insect infestations in the past damaged it and contributed to its fragile condition. But its materials themselves and the way it was made also contribute to its fragility.

The materials from which the headdress was originally made are over 500 years old. Some of them are particularly fragile by nature. Three delicate nets stabilized by thin wooden rods comprise the structure of the headdress. Long green fragile quetzal feathers were sewn to the nets at several points along their length. Each feather is also attached to its neighbors so its movement affects the others around it. Over time, many of the feathers have broken and lost their branches and barbules.

Since its creation, the headdress has been modified many times. The first documented conservation work was done in 1878. It was restored by adding new feathers and golden elements, and it was mounted in a flattened position. In 1992, it was conserved again to improve its appearance.

From 2010 to 2012, a bi-national Mexican-Austrian project studied the construction of the headdress and its history. The project was born out of a desire to display the feather headdress in Mexico. It was undertaken in the hope that it would reveal ways to make this desire a reality.

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

The experts in the project, both Mexican and Austrian, agreed that the feather headdress was an extremely fragile artifact.

Transport

Transport

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

Both Mexican and Austrian experts agreed during the bi-national 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 study whether it would be possible to transport the headdress without exceeding this value. He determined that it was practically impossible to move the headdress using the standard modes of transportation for international loans (motor vehicles and airplanes) without risking 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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