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NMA – Ancient Greeks still thrill

Paris abducting Helen G&R Situla (bucket), Campania, Italy, about 350-340 BCE. Credit: Trustees of the British Museum.

Barry Divola, Gobsmacked, tearful, I climbed it: Ancient Greeks thrill still, 10 December 2021

For many of us, our introduction to the ancient world comes from childhood. In my case, it came at breakfast time. When I was a kid, there was a series on the Seven Ancient Wonders Of The World on the back of cereal boxes that you could cut out and turn into dioramas. I later became obsessed with the plastic toys inside those boxes rather than what was printed on the back of them but this attempt at education worked because I developed a fascination with the ancient world from staring at those boxes, then cutting out the back panels and saving them.

The British Museum’s acting keeper: Greece and Rome, Dr Peter Higgs, prepares Statue of a woman, Parian marble, about 150-100 BCE, for transportation to Australia. CREDIT: NATIONAL MUSEUM OF AUSTRALIA.

In October, I got to see a real piece of one of those seven wonders, a 2.15 metre section of the 140-metre frieze that wrapped around the tomb of King Mausolus. And yes, in case you’re asking, it’s such a well-known memorial to a dead person the word “mausoleum” is derived from it. To say I was gobsmacked to get up close to this work from 350 BCE is an understatement. I felt like I was seven years old again.

The frieze is a key part of Ancient Greeks: Athletes, Warriors And Heroes, a travelling exhibition from the British Museum that started an Australasian tour at the Western Australian Museum in Perth in June, and will run at the National Museum Of Australia from Friday until May next year, before moving on to the Auckland War Memorial Museum in New Zealand.

Dr Peter Higgs – who is Acting Keeper, Greece and Rome at the British Museum – curated the exhibition. His connection to the ancient world also has humble beginnings and goes back to childhood.

“My great uncle, who lived in the north-east of England, and owned a fish and chip shop, had in his back garden a marble statue that was a copy of the Laocoön,” he says from his home in Hastings, on the English south-east coast. “The original statue is in the Vatican museums and it’s a huge thing with a Trojan priest and his two sons being attacked by snakes. It’s completely mad. I don’t know why my great uncle had this statue but it fascinated me, I climbed all over it and I absolutely loved it. And it must have gotten into my head.”

‘My great uncle, who owned a fish and chip shop, had in his back garden a marble statue. I climbed all over it and absolutely loved it.’

The British Museum’s Acting Keeper, Greece And Rome Peter Higgs

It certainly must have because Higgs turned it into his career. For Ancient Greeks, he dug deep into the treasures of The British Museum to gather 178 objects that deal with the broad theme of competition. The exhibition is split into six sections – Nike the Goddess of victory; sport; the performing arts; war; heroes and myths; and competition in everyday life. Many of the objects have never been seen in Australia before and some of them have never toured anywhere outside Britain.

The chosen theme is no accident. Higgs feels that competition is something that ties our modern world to that of the Ancient Greeks.

“Nearly every TV program in the UK today – and I’m sure it’s similar in Australia – seems to involve some form of competition,” he says. “It’s there in our blood and it was there in Greek society, too, in sport, in warfare, in the performing arts and in different aspects of everyday life. Competitions involving singing and performing were not created by the Simon Cowells of this world. That competitive spirit that drives us today, and that desire to achieve great things, goes all the way back to ancient times.”

The British Museum has frequently been urged to return “pilfered cultural property” to their original countries including the famous Elgin Marbles, which came from the Parthenon in Athens. The museum maintains they were legally acquired. Human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson, author of Who Owns History? Elgin’s Loot and the Case for Returning Plundered Treasure, has said: “The trustees of the British Museum have become the world’s largest receivers of stolen property, and the great majority of their loot is not on public display.”

Dr Lily Withycombe, curator at the National Museum of Australia, told Spectrum“Ancient Greeks: Athletes, Warriors and Heroes contains no objects belonging to the Parthenon sculptures and there are no formal requests for the return of any objects in the show, which come from across the Mediterranean.”

There are some magnificent large-scale objects in the exhibition, including statues of a discus thrower and an athlete with his hands raised to tie a victor’s ribbon around his head, but one of Higgs’ favourite items is also one of the smallest, a tiny engraved seal-stone made of chalcedony that is a little over 3 centimetres high and 2.5 centimetres wide.

Training for the pentathlon: detail of Tyrrhenian amphora, Athens, Greece, about 540 BCE. CREDIT: TRUSTEES OF THE BRITISH MUSEUM.

“It depicts Nike building a trophy out of captured arms and armory from the battlefield,” says Higgs. “Nike is a goddess but she’s a goddess who actually does some work. In fact, she’s working so hard that her clothes are falling down. It’s quite rare to see a female figure in a state of undress in Greek art, so this is quite special. It’s also exquisitely engraved and I think it’s one of the finest examples that I’ve seen in the world.”

Higgs is also a fan of the bronze head of an athlete from 400-350 BCE. He describes the subject as “a real bruiser with a bashed-up nose and swollen ears and, rather than being idealised, he looks like he’s been around a bit.” Higgs points out that most of the bronze works from this time were eventually melted down to be re-used, so very few of them survived, making the piece even more precious.

Amphora, Achilles slaying Penthesilea, signed by Exekias as potter and attributed to him as painter about 540-530 BCE. CREDIT: TRUSTEES OF THE BRITISH MUSEUM.

Dr Withycombe doesn’t hesitate when asked about her favourite object. An amphora – or storage vase – painted by the Greek master Exekias about 540-530 BCE, is one of two objects that she and the museum specifically requested to be included in the exhibition, as they weren’t on the original list.

“I’m not the only person who’s moved to tears from seeing the Exekias vase,” she says from her Canberra office. “It’s this incredible scene of love and loss. It’s a very Greek love story where the hero Achilles attacks the Amazon queen Penthesilea but their eyes meet and they fall in love just before she dies. It’s such an intense moment. Exekias is such an extraordinary artist and only 12 examples of his vase painting have survived. I would travel across the country just to see this piece.”

Withycombe was appreciative of the fact Higgs worked hard to ensure there are female stories included in the exhibitionHiggs points out that the ancient Greek world was very much a male-dominated society and most of the art depicted males in athletics, performing arts, warfare and myths and legends, “so, yes, of course we included important female goddesses like Nike and Aphrodite but I also wanted figures of real Greek women in the exhibition.”

‘I’m not the only person who’s moved to tears from seeing the Exekias vase. I would travel across the country just to see this piece.’ National Museum of Australia curator Lily Withycombe

In fact, some of these figures are the most striking. Alongside the impressive depictions of Nike in everything from sculpture to jewellery, some of the more humble objects are remarkable, especially the terracotta model of two women playing knucklebones, a piece that manages to convey a strong sense of everyday life, along with so much movement and personality for such a small sculpture.

Images of everyday women are included in the exhibition. Hydria (water jar), Athens, Greece, about 510 BCE. CREDIT: TRUSTEES OF THE BRITISH MUSEUM.

Withycombe says that despite all her experience as a curator, she’s constantly surprised and astonished by artefacts from the ancient world, and the objects in Ancient Greeks provided many of those moments.

“For example, it never ceases to amaze me that so many of these statues were covered in paint. For a long time we had this idea that these were white marble sculptures but that’s because in the 17th and 18th centuries they were scrubbed with acid and hard brushes. In fact, many of them were vividly coloured and that’s why we developed the polychromy interactive display in this exhibition, so visitors can see for themselves how they may have looked.”

The modern and the ancient meet in other areas of the exhibition, too, including inventive and often amusing animations using the paintings on vases, bringing to life the stories depicted on vessels that are over 2000 years old.

Higgs believes that exhibitions need to tell stories and they need to engage people. He hopes visitors to Ancient Greeks will leave the exhibition with an altered perspective.

“Most of all, I hope they’ll walk out thinking that the ancient Greeks were more human than they’d previously thought when they first walked in. People may know a bit about Nike and Heracles and the Trojan Wars from their school days but I hope they’ll see that the Greeks didn’t all float around in lovely robes, visiting temples all day and talking about philosophy. They were real people. And real people made these wonderful objects.”

‘I hope they’ll see that the Greeks didn’t all float around in lovely robes, talking about philosophy. They were real people.’
Peter Higgs

A modern take: ‘Ko wai koe?, 2003, lithograph by Marian Maguire from the series ‘The Odyssey of Captain Cook’. CREDIT: NATIONAL MUSEUM OF AUSTRALIA.

Withycombe feels the timing of the exhibition is also important, as the country cautiously opens up again and people are hungry to get out and have new experiences. In fact, Ancient Greeks was meant to open in Australia last year but the pandemic delayed its arrival. By the time it opened in Perth in June, it coincided with the opening of the delayed Tokyo Olympic Games just a month later, conveniently dovetailing with the theme of competition in ancient Greece and the present day.

“With international lockdowns and so many shows being cancelled over the last 18 months or so, the fact we’ve been able to bring out this major blockbuster exhibition to Australia is exceptional,” says Withycombe. “This is definitely a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see these objects in one place with such a thoughtful curation.

“In my opinion, a good exhibition is like a holiday. And I think that’s exactly what audiences need right now.”

Additional reporting by Shona Martyn

Ancient Greeks: Athletes, Warriors and Heroes runs at the National Museum Of Australia from 17 December 2021 to 1 May 2022