At the Metropolitan Museum of Art
The alibi for the trip to New York was a visit to the Metropolitan Museum. The husband is part of a team organising a Syria exhibition at the Royal Academy and wanted to look out some early Christian Syrian material and talk to the curators who might lend it (interestingly -- or horrifyingly -- it turns out that a Syrian exhibition would not be possible in the USA, as Bush's legislation about not dealing with terrorist states extends to cultural objects and projects). We also wanted to "do" the new Roman galleries in detail.
Let me say to start with that there is some fabulous stuff in these galleries -- and interestingly different from what you find in European collections. There are no big bits of 'state art' in New York... it's by and large smaller in scale, but almost everything would provide the subject for a whole lecture. It also shows the necessity of actually SEEING the the things you write about.The bronze image of the goddess Cybele pulled by lions in her chariot is often illustrated in books on Roman religion (including my own). I had never realised before that it was part of some water feature, with the lions' mouths acting as spouts. That makes it something rather different from the cult object it is usually assumed to be.
So the whole visit was tremendously worthwhile. In particular the glass, like this gorgeous blue piece -- which I suspect, if one saw it in an antique shop, one would never guess was Roman. Eighteenth-century perhaps?
It made me think that if I was starting my research career all over again, I'd seriously consider going into ancient glassware.
But despite the tremendous riches, there were some problems. Notably some of the labels and information panels. Now, I know from experience that writing museum labels is much harder than people imagine -- and it is too easy to carp.
But the Met didn't come out very well.
For a start, they were terribly reticent about provenance. I don't honestly think that that is because they have had trouble with provenance in the past. I suspect that they simply don't think it matters very much. But sometimes not knowing where something comes from means you simply can't understand it.
Take this copy of the famous Eleusis relief still in Greece. They say it is Augustan Roman (in fact as the husband observed, their default position in Roman art seems to be that things are Augustan...a kind of legacy of Paul Zanker and another contrast with the BM where the default position is that the stuff is Hadrianic). But where does it come from? I mean it makes a difference if it was found in Greece ot Italy, Rome or Baiae, temple or garden...
Not a word. In fact I managed to track down an old article by Gisela Richter, which suggested a findspot in Rome (but not firmly tied into any particular monument). Why couldnt we have been told.
But there were other sins of commission rather than omission. The information panel on "oriental cults" came out with stuff that noone has seriously thought for 50 years or so ("Unlike the state religion with its formal rituals and festivals, oriental cults <no inverted commas!> made a direct appeal to the individual, allowing him or her to enjoy life to the fullest in this world, and promising a better one in the next" -- wrong on almost everything.)
And there were other very strange bits of text. The case labelled "Realism in Hellenistic Art" contained pieces that were anything but "realistic". And the label for one lovely silver cup with Dionysiac scenes insisted that the figures had "little if any real symbolism". There's a problem with the word "real" around here.
Don't let me put you off visiting. It's a tremendous display. And I'm sure that I've written some dumb labels in my time. But some of the Met's do hit a low point!