Museum curator brings ancient Greece to life in Canberra

Dr Lily Withycombe, Greek curator at the National Museum of Australia, spoke with Neos Cosmos about Ancient Greeks: Athletes, Warriors and Heroes, the stunning exhibition that reveals the myth, reality and daily life of the ancient Greeks through the prism of competition.

Ancient Greeks: Athletes, Warriors and Heroes explores competition in our world, in sports, education and the arts. It reflects our heroism in the face of invaders and in the wars between us, as well as our myths.

Dr Withycombe says the works came with a “suggested setting, and the museum then placed the objects in context”.

She has a background in classical archeology and she has spent a lot of time in Greece. She is a first-rate Hellenophile.

“We try not to get too excited about these exhibits when they’re on the table, at first, and then when it comes to opening the boxes and seeing the objects, it’s just wonderful, you can’t keep from getting excited. ”

Dr Withycombe said the project team had been working on developing this exhibit for two years.

“Although the content comes from the British Museum, we need to shape it around our audience and adapt it to our main gallery.

“We edited the interpretive text and revised the order of the exhibition, with numerous meetings to organize this process, as well as back and forth communication with colleagues at the British Museum and we came up with the layout perfect.”

The design was based on the findings of NMA’s public visitor research to ensure the comfort of museum visitors.

We also rewrote the text with the Australian audience in mind, which is different from the British Museum, so we need to change things to suit our audience.

The museum strives to make the “exhibition accessible”, they don’t use terms like BC or AD, “we want secular terms like Before Christian Era BCE and Christian Era CE, or if I see ‘humanity’ “, I would always like to do it humanity.”

In Greek, of course, there is no “humanity”, it is Anthropos, or humanity. Dr Withycombe agrees that we often look at the past through the eyes of the modern world and can’t always truly understand what our ancient ancestors thought.

The exhibition talks about the complex relationship the ancient Greeks had with war, sport, society, gender, competition and art.

A statue is seen during a preview of ‘Ancient Greeks: Athletes, Warriors and Heroes’ at the National Museum of Australia, Canberra on Thursday December 16, 2021. The exhibition explores competition through sport, politics, theatre, music and war, illuminated by more than 170 objects from the British Museum. Photo: AAP/Lukas Coch

“Yes, look at Heracles, I still think the reason he does the twelve labors is because he murdered his wife and children.”

The horror of domestic violence was evoked by our Ancients in their mythology. Hercules’ act was considered heinous, although it was performed without his knowledge under the influence of Hera.

“This exhibition undermines the idea of ​​only twelve labors for Heracles, which is a much later invention.

“One of the objects in the exhibit is Heracles wrestling with Triton and there’s a sea nymph on one side, and that reveals there’s no canon for the myth.”

Dr. Withycombe loves the relief of the Amazons in battle with the Greeks.

“There’s a nice portrayal of the Amazons, and it’s not negative portrayals, and I’ve seen a lot of negative portrayals of the Amazons.

“In this relief of the Greeks fighting the Amazons, the Amazons are shown as incredibly beautiful warriors, and at one point you don’t know if the Amazons are winning, or the Greeks.”

It is often said that for the Greeks, the Amazons may have been representations of female warriors from the steppes of Central Asia.

In the feverish debates about gender and patriarchy now in the context of ancient Greece, it is often omitted that Spartan women were involved in martial arts, chose who to have sex with, and were not coerced into roles. gender-based – as were their Athenian counterparts.

On the question of the British Museum and the Parthenon Marbles, Dr Withycombe states that “Museums all over the world are grappling with problems of providence, and each museum should look at its own collection”.

“None of the objects in this exhibit have a disputed providence,” many of them come from as far back as the Greek Black Sea colonies, dating back to 600 BCE.

As Greeks, we want our culture to be recognized as universal. For example, northern Pakistan is full of Greek artifacts dating back to the Indo-Hellenic Empire. Central Asia is dotted with remnants of Greek civilization and there are Hellenes around the Black Sea dating back to 800 BCE.

The exhibition presents more than 170 objects with artifacts from 800 BCE to 200 CE, from west to east, from Athens (Αθήνα), to Halicarnassus (Ἀλικαρνασσός) in Anatolia, today Bodrum, Turkey .

A visitor takes a look at an artifact during a preview of ‘The Ancient Greeks: Athletes, Warriors and Heroes’ at the National Museum of Australia. Photo: AAP/Lukas Coch

Dr Withycombe doesn’t like to name her favourites, she loves everything about the program. However, pressed by Neos Kosmos, she tips her hat to NMA Director Dr. Mathew Trinca, who “requested the inclusion of two additional outstanding objects: the so-called ‘Apotheosis of Homer’ relief, which features an exquisite example of Hellenistic marble relief sculpture signed by the sculptor Archelaus of Priene; and a black-figure amphora by Hezekiah, the most famous of all known Attic painters, which shows a powerful scene from the Iliad.

She names others, like the two women who play jacks. “It’s such an ancient object and yet so real and so contemporary as it could be now, and it shows the lives of two ordinary women in ancient Greece.”

Dr Withycombe was blessed with a job she loves – not a job, but a calling.

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