The lost museum of “Ancient Mexico”

Engraving by Agostino Aglio of William Bullock's exhibition, Ancient Mexico. From William Bullock, A description of the unique exhibition called Ancient Mexico: collected on the spot in 1823 by the assistance of the Mexican government: and now open for public inspection at the Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly. London, 1824.

Engraving by Agostino Aglio of William Bullock’s exhibition, Ancient Mexico. From William Bullock, A description of the unique exhibition called Ancient Mexico: collected on the spot in 1823 by the assistance of the Mexican government: and now open for public inspection at the Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly. London, 1824. Courtesy John Carter Brown Library.

William Bullock travelled to Mexico soon after that country gained independence. He shared his discoveries in two exhibits, “Ancient Mexico” and “Modern Mexico,” in London’s Egyptian Hall in 1824. On display: animals, plants, antiquities, wax figures, even an Indian from Texcoco. Plaster-of-Paris reproductions of Aztec treasures, including the Calendar Stone dominated the space. Images had appeared in earlier books, but Bullock’s dramatic presentation had a huge public impact.

Many of Bullock’s artifacts are lost. The British Museum purchased some. The central medallion of the Calendar Stone plaster cast survives at the National Museum of Scotland. Some of the manuscripts were returned to Mexico, as promised, and are now on display at the Museo Nacional de Antropología.

The exhibition, by raising new interest in Mexico, left a lasting trace. Some 50,000 people visited. (One of its visitors: James Smithson, whose bequest would fund the Smithsonian Institution!) It helped shape British policy. Viscount Kingsborough, inspired by the exhibit, travelled to Mexico and Mexican collections across Europe to produce his spectacular nine-volume Antiquities of Mexico.

View of three Mexican sculptures of an Aztec god and two goddesses, 1) Chalchiuhtlicue, 2) Quetzalcoatl, and 3) Chicomecóatl. From Viscount Kingsborough, Antiquities of Mexico. London, 1830–1848.  Courtesy John Carter Brown Library

View of three Mexican sculptures of an Aztec god and two goddesses, 1) Chalchiuhtlicue, 2) Quetzalcoatl, and 3) Chicomecóatl. From Viscount Kingsborough, Antiquities of Mexico. London, 1830–1848. Courtesy John Carter Brown Library

More information on the exhibition available inMichael P. Costeloe, “William Bullock and the Mexican Connection,’ Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos Vol. 22, Issue 2, Summer 2006, pages 275–309.

Presented on the occasion of the “Lost Museums” symposium at the John Carter Brown Library, Brown University

Books exhibited:

Antonio de León y Gama, Descripcion histórica y cronológica de las dos piedras : que con ocasion del nuevo empedrado que se está formando en la Plaza Principal de México, se hallaron en ella el año de 1790. México, 1792.

William Bullock, A description of the unique exhibition called Ancient Mexico: collected on the spot in 1823 by the assistance of the Mexican government: and now open for public inspection at the Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly. London, 1824.

Viscount Kingsborough, Antiquities of Mexico. London, 1830–1848.

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