A walk-in Aztec temple offering secrets to the ancient culture's underworld will form the centrepiece of Te Papa's next big-budget exhibition.
The Aztec exhibition, which will feature more than 200 treasured artefacts, will open this September after six years of development.
It is the first of its kind in the southern hemisphere, with a similar show overseas described as a "powerful and macabre" experience.
Its main drawcard will be a giant replica of Templo Mayor, one of the main Aztec temples in the capital city of Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City.
Te Papa is commissioning the building of a scale model, which at five metres high will be one-tenth of the size of the Mexican temple.
Visitors will pass a stone sculpture of the lord of the underworld before entering the temple, where they can learn about Aztec rituals including human sacrifice and dismemberment.
"It's going to be big, it's going to dominate the exhibition space like it dominated Tenochtitlan," Te Papa curator Lynette Townsend said.
"This will be a real insight into the Aztec culture, it's going to be dramatic, vibrant and incredibly intriguing."
Rare artefacts had been sourced from museums throughout Mexico for the exhibition.
Te Papa has been in discussions with Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History about the exhibition since 2007.
It is being developed alongside Sydney's Australia Museum and the Melbourne Museum, and would travel there in January 2014 after closing at Te Papa.
There has only been a few exhibitions of its kind worldwide. One of these was Aztecs, at London's Royal Academy of Arts in 2002 and 2003, which received rave reviews and was called "powerful and macabre" by The Observer.
The museum hopes it will match other large exhibitions over the past decade, such as Egypt: Beyond the Tomb, which drew 120,000 visitors.
Aztecs occupied Mexico from 1325 until 1521, when the Spanish arrived. The sophisticated culture was known for its dazzling jewellery, intricate artworks and ritualised slaughter.
Mexican ambassador Mrs Leonora Rueda said she was very, very excited about the exhibition, which was timed perfectly with the 40th anniversary of New Zealand's diplomatic relations with Mexico.
- The Dominion Post