Greek love and museum labels
I am currently a small part of a small team, engaged in re-displaying the Greco-Roman collections in the Fitzwilliam Museum. Most of the hard work is being done by the Museum Curators (guided by the Curator of Greek and Roman, Lucilla Burn - of the Fitzwilliam and Newnham). But we have a substantial AHRC grant to get a dialogue going between the local academic classicts and the museum professionals (including conservators) ... the idea being to inform" the new display. You can find out more about the people and the project here.
Anyway, we have a regular meetings to talk about the philosophy lying behind the new galleries -- and to get get down to real practical details. What is going to go on the labels?How many words are going to be on the information panels? (We are a university museum -- so can we escape the usual modern museum Stalinism.... nothing over 75 words, reading age of 11 and no more than three syllables . . . ?)
As so often, actually getting round the table and thinking about how you are going to describe a pot (say) turns out to expose the tricky issues, and to bring up all kinds of questions about how we know what we know, and what we want to say to visitors about these objects.
Today we had fun with one particular Athenian pot -- which appears to show a load of sexually predatory blokes, moving in on a desirable boy. Greek love, in other words.
When we looked harder, we weren't quite so sure what exactly was going on. There was a a nicely dressed young man (hardly a 'boy') -- second from the left on the upper register. On the lower register, the bare foot blokes are moving in on their target, apparently offering him a load of love gifts (including, unusually, a crane). You can get a full ranges of pictures here.
But what about the guy carrying the lyre behind the young man. Is he part of the party of sexual predators as some of us fancied? Or is he the trusted servant of the victim? (He is wearing sandals like the 'boy' -- whereas the other blokes are barefoot. . .). And are those blokes simply blokes anyway? If you look carefully, they seem to have satyr ears? Are they meant to be part of a play?
And how anyway do you start to explain Greek pederasty on a label? Unlike us, the Athenians thought that sex between mature men and under-age adolescents was a jolly good thing to be positively encouraged? Or how about some euphemism about 'closeness' between men and boys. Where do you draw the dividing line between coy euphemism and lurid explicitation?
Anyway, after an hour or so of this, we went to see what was happening in the galleries themselves and how far the installation had got. As you can see in the picture, the one object in place is the marvellous Pashley sarcophagus (a Roman sarc -- with a triumph of Dionysos along its main face). This is one of the most exciting pieces in the collection, and had rather been ignored in the old layout. Now it's going to be slap bang in the middle of the galleries, in your face.