Teotihuacan exhibition


/rant mode on

So… The British Museum exhibition about Moctezuma that I went to earlier in December was one of the best I’d ever been to: lots of nice artifacts presented in a nice setting and with the right amount of scholarship.

The Teotihuacan one, however, was not the best by a large margin. It wasn’t a matter of artifacts: a lot of what was on display was awesome pieces ranging from pottery to small figures, as well as pieces of architecture and a few pretty impressive sculpture of gods. The centrepiece was a 1/100 reconstitution of the site with comments on each monument, which was a neat idea and nicely carried out.

However, the presentation itself was appalling. The text was way too long for the displays, and often placed in a manner that forced people to linger for 4-5 minutes in front of it just to process the sentences–which made for some huge jams (and, in some places, the important bits of text were in a corner, forcing people to pile up in front of another set of commentaries in order to read it. Cue double jam, and a total impossibility to access either bit of text or the relevant artefacts).

And whoever wrote it had a bad case of pedantism: I’m sorry, but I don’t really need to know that a flute’s holes were “plugged with the fingers, which allowed the production of various notes by varying the wavelength” (WTF wavelength in an archeological exhibition. Plus, if you really wanna be pedantic, a flute works in a fashion that’s a little more complicated when you plug the holes). And phrases such as “The artists of Teotihuacan used a variety of techniques to produce extraordinary art that has endured through the centuries” or some such are just wasted space. Let’s not even get into the plethora of “anthropomorphic masks” and “zoomorphic jars”–why not just stick to simpler words?

The text also had a bad case of misapplied marxism: “members of the priestly caste constructed vast temples in order to reinforce their authority and place at the top of the hierarchy”? Er, didn’t they build the temples to honor the gods? I very much doubt that they consciously built prestigious places to put down the peasant masses. (and, seriously, “members of the priestly caste”? there’s “clergy” or “priests”, which would have done just as well).
And the very last bit of the exhibition speculated on the fall of Teotihuacan, noting that there had been a great fire and a number of broken buildings and destroyed marks of power–listing as a possible (and indeed likely) explanation a mass rebellion of the lower classes against their oppressors. Or maybe, you know, there was an invasion of a big army that toppled the government, set the city afire, and sought to erase the Teotihuacan economical and cultural domination over the area? History shows loads of invading armies in similar situations (rich city, spends more time on banquets and luxury than on a standing army or fortifications). Full-blown revolutions, however, are few and far between…. [1]

It all culminated in a striking panel that looked like a broken Aztec calendar stone, with a central skull-like face framed by rays. It had a double caption, one for the adults and one for the children. The adult one speculated it might symbolise the victory of Quetzalcoatl over Mictlantecuhtli (fertility and creation over death); the children’s one went ahead and named the central figure as the Sun (the only connection with Quetzalcoatl being that they’re both “good” gods, as in associated with light and life and other “friendly” things, if you’re going by Christian standards of good vs evil, life vs death and light vs dark). *headdesk* I think that summarises exactly how much trust one can put in the captions…

I don’t regret coming, because as said above, the artefacts were awesome, and I very much doubt we’ll see them again in France for a while. But I’m glad I stopped wasting time to read the text.

/rant mode off

(and yes, beginning as we mean to go on: being crabby about misapplied science and history. Seems as good an idea as any)

[1]There have been overthrows of the government in history, for instance in Imperial China, but most of those tend to put a similar type of government back on the throne, and I have seen very few spontaneous uprisings of oppressed peasants, if only because the peasants are seldom aware of being oppressed. They’re far too busy fighting against floods, famines and the rest of the agricultural disasters to speculate on their right to equality, which tends to be a ludicrous notion in most ancient societies. Even the Greeks didn’t believe everyone should vote in a democracy.


  1. Great article. There’s a lot of good info here, though I did want to let you know something – I am running Ubuntu with the circulating beta of Firefox, and the design of your blog is kind of flaky for me. I can read the articles, but the navigation doesn’t work so good.

  2. Hum, which beta? 2.6? I didn’t have issues with firefox before. Can you tell me what goes wrong with the navigation? Thanks!

Sorry. Comments are closed on this entry.