King's College London
Online Exhibitions
Ploughing the sea: Latin America observed

Mexico exhibition

Lithograph depicting the exhibition hall with various groups of figures in contemporary dress looking at the exhibits.Exhibition of Modern Mexico at the Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly.The aftermath of Mexican independence brought hitherto undreamt-of possibilities for European travellers. The voluminous travel writings of Alexander von Humboldt (see section Latin America observed) opened up a vista of apparently vast possibilities for scientific and cultural exploration and for commercial development.

The first such British traveller in independent Mexico, perhaps the first British traveller to set foot in Mexico since Thomas Gage (see section Rogues and rebels), was the naturalist and antiquary William Bullock (ca 1780-1849). Since 1795 he had managed a museum, first in Liverpool, then in London, which contained curiosities from Captain Cook's voyages, Roman antiquities and Napoleonic objects.

In Richard Altick's words, 'Bullock was the first English museum keeper to arrange his specimens in a semblance of what are today called "habitat groups", with careful attention to postures and physical surroundings'. He was therefore a crucial figure in the development of the museum as an organisation, as distinct from the 18th century 'cabinet of curiosities'.

Bullock had two interests in Mexico: as a collector of natural curiosities and artefacts and as a speculator in silver mines, in which venture he was a complete failure. He was not the only Briton of this period to be seduced by this fantastic prospect. Although silver mines in Mexico were potentially still very productive, many were flooded during the independence struggle and took years to recover.

Title page of the exhibition catalogue.Title page of exhibition catalogue.Bullock's journey to Mexico enabled him to bring home many objects, including hieroglyphic manuscripts and maps which had belonged to the last Aztec emperor, Montezuma (see section Indigenous peoples). He had enough artefacts for two exhibitions, one on pre-conquistador Mexico and one on the modern state. As well as the fascinating flora, fauna and minerals, he was able to show his prize 'exhibit', a native Amerindian in his supposedly natural surroundings of a hut and garden, the 'docile and extremely intelligent' José Cayetana Ponce de León, probably the first Mexican Indian to travel abroad since the time of Cortés.

After viewing the exhibition Dorothy Wordsworth remarked that 'the live Mexican [was] not the least interesting object'. Although the use of live human beings as exhibits seems inhumane to us, Bullock's attitude was somewhat less cruel than was often the case in his day; only a few years earlier the 'Hottentot Venus' had been displayed in a cage.

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