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“A unique experience”: the curator of the National Museum, Dr Withycombe, on the exhibition “Ancient Greeks”

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A great exhibition, Ancient Greeks: athletes, warriors and heroes Museum featuring iconic objects that have never toured the southern hemisphere, arrives at the National Museum of Australia (NMA) in Canberra in December 2021.

Museum curator Dr Lily Withycombe speaks to the Greek Herald about the international exhibition that celebrates athletic prowess at the ancient Olympics, highlights the theme of competition, and explores its role as a force for innovation and innovation. ‘Excellency.

TGH: Dr Withycombe, you are curator of the exhibition “Ancient Greeks: Athletes, Warriors and Heroes”. What is going on behind the scenes in the preparation of this unique exhibition?

So many things! The project team has been working on the development of this exhibition for about two years. Although the content is from the British Museum, we need to shape it around our audience and our main gallery.

We have therefore edited the interpretive text and revised the order of the exhibition, with many meetings to prepare for this process, as well as back and forth exchanges with colleagues at the British Museum. We think we are done with the perfect layout.

We also worked closely with a design team, Wendy Osmond Design, to create a stunning exhibition experience. The exhibition palette revolves around the iconic black and orange color scheme of Attic vases and follows this spectrum throughout the exhibition.

The design and layout are based on the latest research on public visitors to ensure the comfort of our visitors, and we have made every effort to maximize gallery space, ensuring that all large items are displayed on plinths and that visitors have a sense of space upon entering.

Women playing bones, terracotta, Capua, Campania, Italy, about 330-300 BCE, 21 x 24 x 13 cm, 1867 0510.1. © The Trustees of the British Museum, 2021. All rights reserved

There is a catalog accompanying the exhibition, for which we asked two renowned Australasian classics, Professor Alastair Blanshard, University of Queensland, and Dr Diana Burton, Victoria University of Wellington, to review the reception of ancient Greece in Australia from the 18the century to the present day in an additional essay and contextualize the exhibition in contemporary Australia and New Zealand.

Finally, we have also produced a series of interactive exhibits, including audio tours, animations, the Osmeterion (where visitors can smell the different scents of ancient Greece), ancient art for interactive coloring, additional graphics like a map of the ancient Mediterranean and a timeline of key historical events, all designed to appeal to different types of audiences.

Some of these products are from collaborations with the Tāmaki Paenga Hira Auckland War Memorial Museum, which will host the exhibition in New Zealand later in 2022. And of course, each department of the museum is actively working on its area of ​​focus – from digital, public programming, retail, education. It’s going to be non-stop from here until the opening day.

TGH: What are the elements that make this exhibition a must-see for the Australian public?

We have transformed this international traveling exhibition in several ways into a unique experience for the Australian public. All of our interpretations and additional programming, for example, have been designed specifically for this purpose.

But above all, there are two must-see items. About two years ago, our director, Dr Mathew Trinca, requested the inclusion of two additional exceptional objects: the relief known as “Apotheosis of Homer”, which features an exquisite example of a Hellenistic relief marble sculpture signed by the sculptor Archelaos of Priene; and a black-figure amphora from Hezekiah, the most famous of all known Attic painters, which shows a powerful scene from the Iliad.

Amphora, black-figure pottery, made in Athens, Greece, circa 540-530 BC. © The Trustees of the British Museum, 2021. All rights reserved

These two objects are very famous and moving examples of ancient Greek art. Although the Apotheosis relief has never traveled to Australia, the Ezekias vase has only returned to Australia for the second time since 1991. I won’t be the only person moved to tears as I stand before these treasures.

But of course each item has the potential to be a “must see” for someone, as different items will appeal to different people. For me, the statue carved in Parian marble of a wise young woman wrapped in luxurious fabric, revealing the virtuoso talents of marble sculptors who could create soft fabrics from such harsh materials, offers an exceptional example of know-how. doing ancient greek that will never fail to amaze me. And everyone will be mesmerized by the range of Attic vases on display, as they present fascinating graphic glimpses of life in the ancient world.

TGH: The exhibition presents various objects including sculptures, armor, jewelry and pottery. Some of them have never been exposed before or have never traveled abroad. Does this make your job as a curator more difficult?

On the contrary, it makes it more exciting! The uniqueness of the objects helps make them a truly special exhibit for our visitors, and more fun for us to organize because we have to research and understand them. One of the main challenges of this object list is the varying dimensions of the object list. Some statues are larger than life at 2 meters in height, but other objects, like gold and silver jewelry, are tiny.

For example, a beautifully engraved blue gemstone with a figure of the goddess Nike installing an armor trophy recovered from the battlefield, is only 3cm in height and 2.5cm in width. Visitors may find it difficult to appreciate the details of this object with their eyes alone, so our solution was to intersperse large-scale wall projections of the tiny objects throughout the exhibition, giving them maximum visibility.

Silver coin, minted in Athens, Greece, about 460-450 BCE, 2.3 cm, 192 0805.316. © The Trustees of the British Museum, 2021. All rights reserved

TGH: Australia is home to the third largest Greek diaspora in the world. Has your interaction with the community influenced your curation of this exhibition?

We have engaged directly with various Greek communities in Australia to ensure this exhibit is delivered with integrity, and we are very grateful to the individuals and organizations who have assisted us throughout the process.

Famous ABC host Patricia Karvelas worked with us to voice the audio tour; and other Greeks-Australians advised on aspects of the exhibition’s development, from programming to design to retail.

TGH: Why do you think it is very important for Australians to learn Greek culture?

Ancient Greece remains a kind of model for many aspects of society and culture in Australia – it resonates daily in our political and civic systems, our architecture, our language and our diet. Ancient Greek literature is still studied in schools and universities across the country, its tragedies and comedies performed and reinterpreted for contemporary audiences.

The universal themes of love, betrayal, adventure, and religious and family obligation still resonate with us. Ancient Greek culture has been reinvented and reinterpreted over the millennia, and each time it receives new relevance.

More recently, Greek migration has helped shape contemporary Australia. That’s why our programming will include events dedicated to celebrating Greek culture, and our retail space will feature products from Greek-Australian industries and manufacturers, showcasing fashion, art and design. .

TGH: How can young Australians get involved in the program?

To ensure the exhibit is aimed at young Australians, we have designed a suite of interactions and programs dedicated just for them, including an audio tour voiced by children and an illustrated route that will help guide young visitors. on their own way through the show. We will complement this in-person experience with online “Have Fun at Home” activities.

During the school holidays, the children will be able to help us build a Greek city in the Gandel Atrium of the National Museum, and we will lead a series of workshops for children led by a local artist based on the themes of the exhibition and of some of its objects. . Younger audiences are also likely to be particularly intrigued by the exhibits that reflect the lives of children in ancient Greece.

Exhibition dates:

National Museum of Australia, Canberra, December 17, 2021 to May 1, 2022

Auckland War Memorial Museum, June 10, 2022 to October 16, 2022


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