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The conservation of an Aztec treasure made of feathers

One of the popular images of Aztec culture consists of an emperor with a large feathered headdress. The last remaining example in the world is one of the highlights of the permanent exhibition at the Weltmuseum Wien, Vienna, Austria.

The list of components of this Aztec headdress already gives a reasonable indication of its value: gold, gilt bronze, leather, paper, cotton, and other fibers, and feathers from the quetzal, cotingas, spoonbill, cuckoo, and kingfisher.

The quetzal bird itself plays a special role in Aztec culture through, for example, an association with Quetzalcoatl, an important deity.

As you might suspect, a lot presumably happened between the Aztec artisans assembling the headdress in early 16th-century Mexico and its appearance in an ethnographic museum in 21st-century Vienna.

The ornament somehow passed into the hands of Archduke Ferdinand II of Tyrol (1529-1595), a descendant of the Habsburgs who ruled, for example, territories in what is now western Austria.

Ferdinand was a great collector and much of his diverse collection of art and artifacts made it to Vienna on time.

Nowadays, the magnificent appearance of the headdress is deceptive. Looking at it from behind, its precarious state of preservation is evident. Aging and insect infestations of the past have damaged it and contributed to its fragile condition. But its own materials 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The materials from which the headdress was originally made are over 500 years old.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 in nature. Three delicate nets stabilized by fine wooden rods make up the structure of the headdress. Long, fragile green quetzal feathers were sewn to the nets at various points along their length. Each feather is also linked to its neighbors, so its movement affects the others around it. Over time, many of the feathers broke off and lost their structures.

Since its creation, the headdress has been modified several times. The first documented conservation work was carried out in 1878. It was restored with the addition of new feathers and gilt elements, and it was mounted flat. In 1992 it was preserved again to improve its appearance.

From 2010 to 2012, a Mexican-Austrian binational project studied the construction of the headdress and its history. The project was born from the desire to exhibit the feathered headdress in Mexico. It was undertaken in the hope of revealing ways to make that wish come true.

Significant damage was found during the project. At least 170 breaks were detected in the 374 long quetzal feathers in the headdress. The netting was torn in many places and some of the metal trim had damaged the surrounding feathers and netting. When removing the headdress from its support with state-of-the-art techniques, some 2,000 fragments of feathers that had previously detached were discovered.

The Mexican and Austrian experts agreed during design that the feathered headdress could not withstand the 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 overcoming the risks inherent in this operation. He determined that it was practically impossible to move the headdress using standard means of transportation for international loans (cars and airplanes) without risking damage to this object.

Unfortunately, this ornament cannot return to Mexico yet... who knows with the advent of new technologies, this object can return to its place of origin?

Are you interested in feather ornaments?

Take the opportunity to consult our new course with Profa. Susan Salguedo - Feather Art: Document to preserve!

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