Object Spotlight: Representing Tenochtitlan: Understanding Urban Life by Collecting Material Culture

We asked author John K. Millhauser to share with us some items that relate to his recently published article in the latest issue of Museum Anthropology, co-authored with Elizabeth Brumfiel, who recently passed. The article looks at the Aztec World exhibition at Chicagos Field Musuem through the lens of urbanization and how urbanization should be portrayed in the museum settings. Brumfiel and Millhauser suggest a focused and systematic approach for the Field Museum to collect 21st-century urban culture from Chicago to effectively document and represent the many voices of cities. (Brumfiel and Millhauser 6). 

Read the full article in the latest issue of Musuem Anthropology here.

How can museums best document and represent the complexity of urban life and the significance of modern cities? We consider this question through an examination of the Aztec World exhibit, presented at the Field Museum of Chicago from October 2008 through April 2009. We explain how the effort to represent Tenochtitlan, the heterogeneous urban capital of the Aztec Empire (C.E. 14281521), was affected by the acquisitions policies of museums in the United States and Mexico, and by the curators' own ideas about how urban societies should be represented. Drawing on this background, we outline how a careful and comprehensive collection program can resist poor interpretation and misrepresentation, and may even prefigure new and better understandings of cities that will be gained in the future.

Fig 1
Ceramic Figurine of a woman holding a child, from the collection of The Field Museum. Figurines such as this often adorned small altars inside Aztec homes.(Brumfiel and Feinman 2008:Figure 5).
Image credit is (c) 1992 The Field Museum, A105154c_96220, Photographer Kathleen Culbert Aguilar, FM_96220.

Fig 2
An Aztec woman. She kneels, a position that would enable her to grind maize or weave cloth on a back-strap loom. This is a conventional pose for women in art commissioned by the Aztec state, although household figurines more often depict women in a standing position.(Brumfiel 2008:Figure 1)
Image credit is (c) 2007, American Museum of National History, Division of Anthropology 30.1/1201.

Both Figure 1 and Figure 2 likely date to the period of the 14th to 16th centuries A.D. The ceramic figurine was mold-made and figurines like it are common finds in archaeological contexts in the Basin of Mexico. Stone sculptures were uncommon outside of palaces, temples, and important public or community spaces.

The figurine in Figure 1 was in the collections of the Field Museum and was available for the exhibit. A good part of the paper is about how previous collection strategies emphasized rare and extravagant  items that only tell a fraction of the story of a society. The small figurine in the collection of the Field Museum is one of the  more every-day objects, those kinds of objects that would have been typically found in commoner households, that Liz and the other curators had difficulty finding for their exhibit. This figurine is an exception to the rule that previous collection strategies made it hard to find certain kinds of objects to tell the story of the Aztec World. 

One of Dr. Brumfiels main points in the paper and her part in curating the Aztec Worlds exhibit was that previous exhibits had either intentionally or unintentionally emphasized the perspective of men, male leaders of Aztec society, or an ideology of male superiority and violence. Even the larger sculpture below reflects this tendency, according to Liz. In more monumental art, women were often presented as subservient. Dr. Brumfiel states in the chapter from which the images are drawn: This [state] ideology glorified male warriors and portrayed women as agents of cosmic disorder and enemies destined for conquest (87). To get a more complete picture of life in Aztec cities or societies, you need to look at a wider range of items than are typically presented in exhibits.

Female figures show up in ceramic figurines and in sculpture as deities and religious figures as well, but the dichotomy persists even for these subjects. Several famous female deities in sculpture reflect their defeat, dismemberment, and destruction by their male counterparts. In ceramic figurines, which were part of household ritual rather than state religious propaganda, female deities are not presented as defeated or dismembered.

In the article, Dr. Millhauser discusses the importance of the presentation of the objects in the display. The ceramic figurine does not have a single meaning, and its meaning is not obvious. We'll often see groups of figurines displayed in exhibition cases with little context or meaning attributed to them -- they are interesting for their aesthetics, as fetishes, or in their range of variation or repetition of form and content. To make a small figurine of a woman stand out as key example of life in commoner households and the experiences of many Aztec women gives it a different voice, meaning, and significance that it would have grouped up with a bunch of other objects.

The figurine is also important from the perspective of our goal of providing guidance to the Field Museum as it developed a strategy to collect material culture from the modern city of Chicago. We recommended that the Field Museum ask people what was important to them (and why), but not to do so in a haphazard way. Asking men and women of different statuses and backgrounds could provide access to the kinds of objects like that little figurine, as well as the explanation of their importance, that can guide and enrich future exhibitions.

The text above was provided by and written by Dr. John Millhauser in private correspondence and edited for the blog by Lillia McEnaney. 


Brumfiel, Elizabeth M.
  2008  Aztec Women: Capable Partners and Cosmic Enemies. In The Aztec world. E.M. Brumfiel and G.M. Feinman, eds. Pp. 87-104. New York and Chicago: Abrams, in association with The Field Museum.
Brumfiel, Elizabeth M. and Gary M. Feinman
  2008  The Aztec World in Historical Context. In The Aztec world. E.M. Brumfiel and G.M. Feinman, eds. Pp. 1-4. New York and Chicago: Abrams, in association with The Field Museum.