It’s All Greek to Me

Review of Ancient Greeks: Athletes, Warriors and Heroes at the WA Museum Boola Bardip until 7 November 2021.

Standing in front of a vase, a multi-generation family were loudly animated in their discussion about the object. I would love to tell you what they found so exciting, but the debate was in Greek, a language I can’t speak. It would be wonderful to imagine the vase was from their hometown and so had a very personal connection, but it would have been impolite to intrude on their day out, so I’ll never know.

And this is by way of asking the key question: who is this exhibition for? I should confess I’m a mere dilettante when it comes to the ancient world, although my enthusiasm here possibly lies beyond what might be considered average. I’m more likely to reread Homer than turn on Netflix, more Plato than Fifty Shades of Grey, and my Twitter feed is filled with classicists angsty about making their discipline relevant to young people of colour. But despite all this, I am not a classicist, I do not pretend to read Ancient Greek and my small collection of classical books are entirely in translation. Which is to say, an exhibition on the ancient world should, presumably, partially be pitched at the dabbler like me.

Like many academic disciplines, the world of the classics is going through a period of turmoil. In response to worldwide movements like Black Lives Matter, younger academics are questioning the field’s track record on exploring issues of race, gender, sexuality, colonialism, and class, both for the subjects studied and how these intersect with students’ concerns. Add to this a need to counter the hijacking of symbols of the ancient world (medievalists have a similar problem) by a resurgent far right, and you have lively relevant debates going far beyond the mere dating of statues and arguing over which goddess the Venus de Milo actually was. Not that you would know this from visiting the exhibition at the WA Museum.

To take one hot issue, but a famous one when it comes to Ancient Greece, how does the exhibition deal with sexuality? Well, on one label (from memory, since I spectacularly failed to take notes) you will discover that by reading some old texts it was “culturally acceptable for a man to admire another man’s physique”. By reading old books? The presence of loads of naked men all over the place didn’t tip you off then? And just admire bodies, presumably from afar? No hot man-on-man action going on in Greece, evidently. Of course, sexuality in the ancient world is a complex topic, but literally thousands of books and papers have been written on the subject, all of which are simply ignored here in Perth. I would say a 90-year-old Sunday School teacher must have written the label, but pretty sure the average 90-year-old Sunday School teacher is more progressive than whoever was behind this piece of interpretation.

As for a rare mention of gender, another label assures us theatre was open to men, women, slaveholders and slaves alike. How very egalitarian, then. Except this simple claim covers up a multitude of complex debates. Thirty seconds of research revealed a dozen papers which argue no women attended the theatre, especially if a tragedy was on, a dozen which claim they did, and a further dozen which state we simply don’t know if they did or did not. The fun of doing classics is that the scholar must behave like Sherlock Holmes. Tiny pieces of evidence have to be extrapolated into major claims about the truth, but because of the ambiguous nature of some data, there’s plenty of room for lively arguments in the staff coffee room and academic journals. Just saying the theatre was an equal opportunities space (and perhaps it was, perhaps it wasn’t) is wasting an opportunity to explore how we know anything at all about the ancient world.

Now, the curators can only interpret the objects they’ve been given and what they’ve been given here is distinctly average. If I were unfair, I’d say it looks like the British Museum grabbed some stuff from the cardboard box in the attic [pun intended] which otherwise might have gone to the op shop. Actually, there’s a little truth to this. A surprising number of objects on display are from Charles Newton’s dig at Halikarnassos in the 1850s, where he looted so much stuff he shipped 100 cases back to London where the British Museum simply put them in storage, since there was no room to show them to the public. It’s no surprise the British Museum didn’t lend us their star attractions, and anyone who’s been there will know they have some amazing Greek stuff. So, no shock the pieces in Perth are middle-tier at best, with some below average, such as the ‘restored’ statue of a discus thrower, complete with brand new 18th century head (and possibly genitals, it wasn’t clear).

And the mention of Halikarnassos reminds me the curators didn’t get the memo about Decolonising the Museum. This important movement wants to tell the public not only about ancient artifacts but let them know how a museum came to acquire them in the first place. Were they looted? Purchased? Does another country want them back? When I visited the British Museum last year, just before Covid stopped anyone else going, their Ancient Greek displays were in the process of transitioning to a decolonised interpretation. And in case you think this is just some trendy woke thinking, it’s worth remembering Byron’s thoughts at the time Lord Elgin looted the Parthenon Marbles, which are still proudly displayed at the British Museum: “Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed / By British hands, which it had best behov’d / To guard those relics ne’er to be restored”. Elgin was the bad guy.

Which neatly brings me to one object I adored at the exhibition. Not because it’s the highest quality art, it is not, but because it reveals some of the complexity of our relationship to the ancient world. The picture above is of Aphrodite, a 1st century copy of a 3rd century BCE original. This piece was owned by the very same Lord Byron who despised Elgin for looting Greece. And I am a Byron stan, which is why this statue means a lot to me. How he came by it isn’t mentioned in the exhibition, but own it he did. Is this hypocrisy? Maybe. But it’s the same hypocrisy I can claim for myself. I want to be able to explore Ancient Greece in my own backyard (or in Northbridge, as the case happens) while simultaneously lamenting the theft of other people’s culture. If you have an easy solution to this (and I don’t think replicas cut it), please let me know so I can feel better about myself.

There’s a lot to see here, arranged by theme rather than chronologically, which does lead to another issue. Hundreds of years of history are blurred into a single ‘Ancient Greece’ without recognition of change. A statue of a wealthy woman tells us she is wearing fashionable clothes, without letting us know how fashions altered over time. Differences between the Classical and the Hellenistic are not given attention here, which is like displaying 18th century clothing next to a Victoria Beckham dress and failing to point out any variation. And, while I’m whining, lighting could be improved in places. A few wide-rimmed vases are top lit only, so you have to crouch and peer into semi-darkness to try and make out the details on the decoration, which is what we’re meant to be admiring. Please sort this out, WA Museum.

So, do I recommend the exhibition? Sure, why not? Everyone will get something out of it, even if only a 1,500 word rant on a blog. Afterwards, you can nip into the giftshop and pick up a Trojan Horse 3D jigsaw puzzle, a copy of Homer (in English), or salt and pepper shakers in the shape of classical columns. My only reservation is the $25 entry fee is little steep for the value on offer but if, like me, you have a love of the ancient world, there really isn’t an alternative exhibition on right now, and a pandemic stops you holidaying in Greece (or even London) to see better examples. Despite much of the above, the exhibition is okay, really. But I’m still not quite sure who it’s exactly for.