Overwhelmed, streaked with tears, I climbed: the ancient Greeks are still inspiring

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 about the Seven Wonders of the World on the back of cereal boxes that you could cut out and turn into dioramas. Later I became more obsessed with the plastic toys in these boxes than what was printed on the back, but this educational attempt worked because I developed a fascination for the ancient world by staring at these boxes, then cutting out the back panels and saving You.

In October, I was able to see a real piece of one of these seven miracles, a 2.15 meter section of the 140 meter high frieze that wrapped around the tomb of King Mausolus. And yes, in case you ask, it’s such a well-known memorial to a dead man that the word “mausoleum” is derived from it. To say that I was amazed to see this work from 350 BC. To be able to approach Chr. Is an understatement. I felt like seven years old again.

The frieze is an important part of Ancient Greeks: athletes, warriors and heroes, a British Museum touring exhibit that kicked off an Australasian tour at the Western Australian Museum in Perth in June and will be on view at the National Museum Of Australia from Friday to May next year before heading to the Auckland War Memorial Museum in New Zealand.

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

The Acting Guardian of the British Museum: Greece and Rome, Dr. Peter Higgs, prepares the statue of a woman from Parian marble, about 150-100 BC. BC, for transport to Australia before. Credit:National Museum of Australia

“My great-uncle, who lived in the north-east of England and owned a fish-and-chip shop, had a marble statue in his garden that was a copy of the Laocoon,” he says from his home in Hastings, on the south-east coast of England. “The original statue is in the Vatican Museums and it is a huge deal when a Trojan priest and his two sons are attacked by snakes. It’s completely insane. I don’t know why my great uncle had this statue but it intrigued me, I climbed all over it and absolutely loved it. And it must have crossed my mind. “

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

The Acting Guardian of the British Museum, Greece and Rome Peter Higgs

It certainly has to be, because Higgs made it his career. for Ancient Greeks, he dug deep into the treasures of the British Museum and collected 178 objects that deal with the broad subject of competition. The exhibition is divided into six areas – Nike, the goddess of victory; Sports; The performing arts; War; Heroes and myths; and competition in everyday life. Many of the objects have never been seen in Australia and some of them have never been toured outside of the UK.

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The chosen topic is no accident. Higgs believes that competition is something that connects our modern world to that of the ancient Greeks.

“Almost every television program in the UK these days – and I’m sure it is similar in Australia – seems to involve some form of competition,” he says. “It’s in our blood and was also there in Greek society, in sports, in war, in the performing arts and in various aspects of everyday life. Singing and performing competitions were not created by the Simon Cowells of the world. This competitive spirit that drives us today and this will to achieve great things goes back to antiquity. “

The British Museum has often been asked to return “looted cultural assets” to their original lands, including the famous Elgin Marbles that came from the Parthenon in Athens. The museum claims that they were lawfully acquired. Human rights attorney Geoffrey Robertson, author of Who does the story belong to? Elgin’s loot and the case for the return of looted treasure, said: “The British Museum Trustees have become the world’s greatest recipients of stolen property, and the vast majority of their loot is not on public display.”

Dr. Lily Withycombe, a curator at the National Museum of Australia, said spectrum: “The ancient Greeks: athletes, warriors and heroes does not contain any objects belonging to the Parthenon sculptures and there are no formal requests for the return of objects from the exhibition that come from the Mediterranean region. “

There are some great large-format items on display, including statues of a discus thrower and an athlete with his hands raised to tie a ribbon around his head, but one of Higgs’ favorites is also one of the smallest, a tiny engraved chalcedony seal stone called the is just over 3 inches high and 2.5 inches wide.

Training for the pentathlon: detail of the Tyrrhenian amphora, Athens, Greece, around 540 BC

Training for the pentathlon: detail of the Tyrrhenian amphora, Athens, Greece, around 540 BC Credit:Trustee of the British Museum

“It shows Nike building a trophy from weapons and armor captured from the battlefield,” says Higgs. “Nike is a goddess, but she is a goddess who actually works. In fact, she works so hard that her clothes fall off. In Greek art it is quite rare to see a female figure undressed so this is very special. It’s also exquisitely engraved and I think it’s one of the most beautiful examples I’ve seen in the world. “

Higgs is also a fan of the bronze head of an athlete from 400-350 BC. He describes the subject as “a real bruise with a bruised nose and swollen ears and he’s not idealized, but looks like he’s gotten around a bit”. Higgs points out that most of the bronze works from this period were eventually melted down to be reused, so few of them survived, which makes the piece even more valuable.

Dr Withycombe doesn’t hesitate when asked about her favorite property. An amphora – or storage vase – which the Greek master Exekias around 540-530 BC.

“I’m not the only person who is moved to tears at the sight of the Exekias vase,” she says from her office in Canberra. “It’s this incredible scene of love and loss. It’s a very Greek love story in which 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 copies of his vase painting have survived. I would travel across the country just to see this piece. “

Amphora, Achilles kills Penthesilea, signed by Exekias as a potter and given to him as a painter around 540-530 BC.  Attributed to BC.

Amphora, Achilles kills Penthesilea, signed by Exekias as a potter and given to him as a painter around 540-530 BC. Attributed to BC. Credit:Trustee of the British Museum

Withycombe was grateful for the fact that Higgs worked hard to ensure that female stories were included in the exhibit. Higgs points out that the ancient Greek world was a heavily male dominated society, and most of the artwork depicted men in athletics, the performing arts, warfare, and myths and legends Aphrodite, but I wanted characters from real Greek too Have women in the exhibition. “

“I’m not the only person who is moved to tears at the sight of the Exekias vase. I would travel across the country just to see this piece. ‘

Lily Withycombe, curator of the National Museum of Australia

In fact, some of these numbers are the most noticeable. In addition to the impressive displays of Nike in everything from sculpture to jewelry, some of the more humble objects are noteworthy, particularly the terracotta model of two women playing ankle bones, a piece that manages to convey a strong sense of everyday life and so much movement and personality for such a small sculpture.

The exhibition contains pictures of everyday women.  Hydria (water jug), Athens, Greece, around 510 BC.

The exhibition contains pictures of everyday women. Hydria (water jug), Athens, Greece, around 510 BC. Credit:Trustee of the British Museum

Withycombe says that despite all her experience as a curator, she keeps coming back to artefacts from ancient times and the objects in Ancient Greeks made for many of these moments.

“For example, I am always amazed that so many of these statues were covered in paint. For a long time we had the idea that they were white marble sculptures, but that’s because they were scrubbed with acid and hard brushes in the 17th and 18th centuries. In fact, many of them were colorful and that’s why we developed the interactive polychrome display for this exhibition so that visitors can see for themselves what they might have looked like. “

Modern and ancient meet in other exhibition areas as well, in which original and often amusing animations with vase paintings bring the stories to life on vessels that are more than 2000 years old.

A modern interpretation: 'Ko wai koe ?, 2003, lithograph by Marian Maguire from the series' The Odyssey of Captain Cook'.

A modern interpretation: ‘Ko wai koe ?, 2003, lithograph by Marian Maguire from the series’ The Odyssey of Captain Cook’. Credit:National Museum of Australia

Higgs believes that exhibitions have to tell stories and inspire people. He hopes visitors Ancient Greeks will leave the exhibition with a different perspective.

“Most of all, I hope they go thinking that the ancient Greeks were more human than they thought they were when they first walked in. People may know Nike and Heracles and the Trojan Wars from their school days, but “I hope they will see that the Greeks didn’t all float around in beautiful robes, going to temples and talking about philosophy all day. They were real people. And real people made these wonderful objects. “

“I hope you will see that the Greeks weren’t all floating around in beautiful robes talking about philosophy. They were real people. ‘

Peter Higgs

The timing of the exhibition is also important to Withycombe as the country is slowly opening up again and people are hungry to come out and have new experiences. As a matter of fact, Ancient Greeks was supposed to open in Australia last year but the pandemic delayed their arrival. When it opened in Perth in June, it coincided just a month later with the opening of the postponed Tokyo Olympics, fitting comfortably with the theme of competition in ancient Greece and the present.

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“With international bans and so many canceled shows over the past 18 months, the fact that we were able to bring this big blockbuster exhibition to Australia is extraordinary,” says Withycombe. “This is definitely a once in a lifetime opportunity to see these items in one place with such a well thought out curation.

“In my opinion, a good exhibition is like a vacation. And I think that’s exactly what the audience needs right now. “

  • with additional coverage from Shona Martyn

The ancient Greeks: athletes, warriors and heroes runs at the National Museum Of Australia from December 17 to May 1, 2022


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