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A New Take on the Aztecs
by Jeong Hyun Associate Curator of the Exhibition Division, National Museum of Korea
Aztecs: The People Who Moved the Sun
May 3 - August 28, 2022
National Museum of Korea
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The National Museum of Korea (NMK) presents Aztecs: The People Who Moved the Sun, which highlights one of the major civilizations of the world. To offer its audiences opportunities to experience cultural and historical diversity, the NMK has held a series of exhibitions on the world’s great civilizations, including Egyptian, Greek, Roman and Islamic cultures. The COVID-19 pandemic that has continued for more than two years entailed significant lifestyle changes, including severe travel restrictions. Naturally, people's thirst to experience other cultures have grown stronger over time. Accordingly, the NMK has done the legwork, so to speak, and has prepared this opportunity to appreciate cultural treasures from abroad right here in Korea.

Part 5 of the exhibition, "Center of the Universe”

The Aztec empire (located in present-day Mexico) was one of the greatest civilizations of the American continent, along with the Incas and Mayas, who were featured in special exhibitions at the NMK in 2009 and 2012, respectively. For many Koreans, the Aztec empire remains unfamiliar. Rather than its history and culture, we hear more about the brutality of war and human sacrifices and the story of their fall at the hands of the Spanish conquistadors, whom they supposedly mistook for gods.
However, the Aztecs built one of the most powerful states in Mesoamerican history and flourished thanks to solid ruling system. Active conquests and a tribute system connected all of Mesoamerica, and art and knowledge developed apace. As the first exhibition introducing their civilization to Korea, Aztecs: The People Who Moved the Sun explores a culture and history that we may have overlooked. Recent studies and excavations have shown that any negative perception of the Aztecs stems from the European conquistadors who exaggerated and distorted facts to justify their invasion of the Americas and force new religions on the people.
Hence, the exhibition attempts a new understanding of their sacrificial rites, which had previously been regarded as acts of cruelty.

All Aztec political, economic, social, and religious systems are based on their unique, complex worldview and cosmology. The Aztecs, who called themselves the Mexica, believed that the sun and the world were created and functioned thanks to the sacrifice of the gods.
Likewise, it was due to the gods that human beings existed and lived their lives in this world. Therefore, they firmly believed that to repay the gods and ensure the continuation of the world they must offer up rites with a sacred, sacrificial offering. Such offerings included the blood and heart of a human being. The exhibition first introduces the worldview that ruled over Aztec society and then explores diverse aspects of their culture, including nature, economics, politics, art, knowledge, and sacrificial rites.
Spatially, the exhibition moves through several zones – the universe, to the central plateau of Mexico, to Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, and to the Great Temple (Templo Mayor) in the sacred district of the city at the center of the Aztec empire, in this way immersing the visitors in the story.
The first part of the exhibition features the famous Aztec Sun Stone and a selection of other exhibits along with videos that shed light on the world as the Mexica saw it, and vividly narrate the mystery of their legends. The Sun Stone, meticulously reproduced based on 3D data along with a range of videos, will help visitors to understand the Aztec people’s view of the world.

Media art presentation of the Sun Stone in Part 1 of the exhibition, “The People Who Moved the Sun”
  • Brazier in the Shape of Chalchiuhtlicue, the Goddess of Water and Fertility Aztec empire, Early 16th century, Earthenware, Museo Nacional de Antropologia, Mexico
  • Skull Mask Aztec empire, 15th century, Human bones, flint, shells, and pyrite, Museo del Templo Mayor, Mexico

The second part explores the daily lives of the Mexica, who adapted themselves to ecosystems and environments ranging from rainforests to arid plateaus. While delving into the rituals that were a part of their everyday lives, the exhibition also examines their food culture based on corn and cacti and their efforts to secure a stable supply. Moreover, the little details and practices of their daily lives are introduced through images taken from the Codex Mendoza, written in the native language and accompanied by pictograms. Here the stories of the Aztec people come to life before our eyes.

The third part of the exhibition examines the Aztec conquests and the tribute system that united all of Mexico from the Central Plateau and beyond.
After conquering Mexico thanks to their military might, the Mexica became the new rulers of the country and received large tributes of grains and goods from conquered regions.
This system of collecting tribute was an effective means for the Aztecs to control the faraway city-states they had conquered while contributing to the prosperity of the empire and cultural exchanges in its territories.

Part 3 of the exhibition, "An Empire Built on Conquest and Tribute"

The fourth part of the exhibition takes visitors into the heart of Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec empire. Tenochtitlan, located on a swampy island in Lake Texcoco, became one of the most prosperous cities in the world in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries after the Aztecs settled there in 1325. When the Spaniards first arrived in Tenochtitlan in 1519, they were said to have marveled at the city’s size and development. On display are old documents and other items showing the beautiful architecture that used to adorn the city, the superb pottery used by the aristocrats, and the codex, indicating the high level of the people’s knowledge.

Part 4 of the exhibition, "Living in Luxury"

The fifth and final part leads to the sacred district of Tenochtitlan, which the Mexica believed to be the center of the world. This was the religious center of the Aztec empire and the place where political and economic activity took place. Here priests gathered offerings that came from all over Mexico and held sacrificial rites to the gods who had sacrificed themselves to create the sun, or the world.
The display here focuses on the archaeological excavation of the Templo Mayor area that has been going on since 1978, prompting us to take an interest in the Aztec people’s dedicated efforts to protect the world, which had been hidden behind an image of brutality.

Part 5 of the exhibition, "Center of the Universe”
Part 5 of the exhibition, "Center of the Universe”
  • Ehecatl, the Wind God Aztec empire, 1480-1519, Andesite, Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum, Germany
  • Jar Depicting Tlaloc, the Rain God Aztec empire, Early 16th century, Earthenware, Museo del Templo Mayor, Mexico
  • Mictlantecuhtli, the Lord of the Underworld Aztec empire, 1430-1502, Clay, Museo del Templo Mayor, Mexico
  • Eagle Head Aztec empire, Mid-14th century to 1521, Stone, Royal Museums of Art and History, Belgium
Part 5 of the exhibition, "Center of the Universe”
Part 4 of the exhibition, "Living in Luxury"

As the first introduction of the Aztec civilization in Korea, this special exhibition attempts to take a closer look at their history, culture, mythology, and various other aspects.
It features 208 items from 11 museums in Mexico and Europe, including the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico, the Linden Museum in Germany, and the National Museum of World Cultures in the Netherlands. In cooperation with these museums, the academic aspect of the exhibition was reinforced by active utilization of the latest research and excavation results. In particular, many Mexican and European researchers participated in preparing the catalog, which is expected to be an important resource for proper understanding of the Aztec history and culture.
Furthermore, to inspire greater interest in the Aztecs and promote understanding of a culture that remains unfamiliar for many of the audiences, various digital contents using digital mapping and animation techniques were developed to make the subject easier and more stimulating. For a deeper immersion experience, models of the sacred district, including the stepped pyramids comprising the Templo Mayor, are exhibited in combination with augmented reality (AR) applications.
Many variables came up before the opening of the special exhibition. The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, and the outbreaking war in Ukraine made preparations very difficult. Some unexpected situations also occurred. The courier in charge of overseeing the transport from one of the lending institutions caught coronavirus, and the cargo plane scheduled to carry the exhibits was suddenly cancelled, which kept us on edge until the very end.
However, due to smooth cooperation with the overseas museums and our own redoubled efforts, the NMK was able to surmount all difficulties and successfully open the exhibition.

The Aztec civilization may have seemed beyond our knowledge or reach but this proves not to be the case. The modern name “Mexico” for the country and its capital city come from the Mexicas, which is what the Aztecs called themselves, and expressed on the Mexican national flag is the Aztec founding myth. Moreover, many of the food ingredients we consume daily originated with the Aztecs, and people all over the world today love to eat Mexican food.
This year marks the 60th anniversary of diplomatic ties between Korea and Mexico. Like the 52-year cycle in the Aztec calendar, the time taken for the solar and ritual cycles to meet up in the same position, 60 years of friendship between Korea and Mexico holds special meaning. We hope that Aztecs: The People Who Moved the Sun will be an opportunity to discover the true image of the Aztecs, hitherto confounded by a mixture of history and myths and hidden by exaggeration and distortion.

Part 3 of the exhibition, "An Empire Built on Conquest and Tribute"