Moctezuma, Aztec ruler was the last of four big temporary exhibitions about ‘world rulers’ that the British Museum has put on in the past three years. Moctezuma was the king who received Cortés and the Conquistadores in 1519 and was killed the next year in their custody. The previous three exhibitions were on the First Emperor of China, the Roman Emperor, Hadrian, and Shah ‘Abbas, respectively. Hadrian and The First Emperor were archaeological (James 2008a, 2008c). So was Moctezuma. It ran from September 2009 to January 2010.
Kingship is evidently in vogue among London’s galleries. During The First Emperor’s showing, Tutankhamun entertained on the other side of the river (James 2008b); and the Victoria & Albert Museum mounted Maharaja during Moctezuma’s run. There are good reasons for thinking about kings in any society, regardless of political constitution, because, in their coronations, their deeds and their deaths or funerals, they are ‘collective representations’. Whether as heroes or as scapegoats, democracies tend to promote ‘celebrities’ by the same token and, as well as governing, perhaps monarchs, ancient or contemporary, served and serve that function too. Historians, sociologists and anthropologists have tackled these themes through comparison and so have archaeologists, with epigraphy, iconography and the excavation of palaces and tombs (Blanton et al. 1996; Quigley 2005).