Sunday, 3 February 2013

Admirable and abysmal presentation at the Ashmolean

The Shoemaker Pot (Picture: Ashmolean)
I don't know much about Greek vases, but I like them.  They are outside my main artistic interests, but I've enjoyed hours perusing collections from Malibu to Moscow.  I've recently read excellent popular books based on the collections in the Met, the Getty and the Berlin Antikensammlung, which have given me a bit more knowledge and helped develop my appreciation.  But whereas in galleries of European paintings I read the wall text so that I can heckle the attributions, I'm still reliant on the curators to help me make sense of Greek vases.  In the Ashmolean they've let me down. 

The Ashmolean has one of the best collections of Greek vases in the world - certainly the best in the UK after the British Museum.  The presentation is thematic rather than chronological, which is quite common in displays of ancient art.  That makes it harder to show the development of Greek art, but it can still be an effective heuristic - the Getty Villa does a great job of combining a predominantly thematic display with enough chronological exhibits to make sense of historical development.  But at the Ashmolean the presentation is crushingly banal.  Here is the text of the 'Women and Children' section:
Women in most city-states of ancient Greece had very few rights.  They were under the control and protection of their husband or a male relative for their entire lives and had no role in politics.  Most women spent their waking hours in the preparation of cloth: whether carding, spinning or weaving wool.  To be considered respectable, women would remain at home, only going out for festivals or to fetch water from a public well.  The only important public role for a woman was to be a priestess.  Marriages were arranged by parents and dowries were paid to the groom's family.  Marriage was usually for purposes of family alliance rather than love (although Eros, the god of love, figures large in wedding imagery).
The only point where this touches on art is a parenthetic reference to the god of love featuring in wedding imagery (who'd have guessed?).   The Ashmolean is a museum of archaeology as well as art, and I think it's completely legitimate to tell the wider story of ancient society.  But even as social history this is pretty thin and unnuanced.  In any case, it shouldn't have to be a choice between either social history or art; Greek vases are valuable both as records of ancient Greek society and as great works of art that have resonated through history.  Other museums manage successfully to convey both aspects. 
Some Greek vases are signed, occasionally by both potter and painter.  Others have been grouped together under conventional names.  Generations of scholarship have brought us closer to the individual creative minds of ancient Greece.  The Ashmolean has examples by some of the greatest vase painters, but you wouldn't know it from the captions because they don't name any artist on the exhibit labels.  That's right.  Pause and read that again.  They really don't even name the artists. 

There is lively debate about the role of the individual artist in ancient Greece, and some are sceptical of applying methods of connoisseurship developed in the context of renaissance European art to the study of ancient Greece.  I certainly agree that assigning authorship shouldn't be the sole purpose of scholarship; that would be arid indeed.  But individual styles are readily apparent, and the presence of signatures (rare even in early renaissance art) must indicate some contemporary recognition of artistic personality.  I simply cannot comprehend any rationale for expunging all reference to authorship. 
Objects are subsumed in thematic stories, with only minimal information about individual vases.  The caption next to one piece is "Man and boy making love.  The nature of Greek homosexual love is the subject of current academic debate."  That is possibly the worst caption I've ever read.  We can see that it's a man and boy making love.  And to be told that there is an academic debate without giving us any information whatsoever about that debate is tantamount to saying 'move along people, academics are talking about this - we'll get back to you when we've concluded the debate, and in the meantime there's a gift shop just downstairs...'. 
The contrast in the renaissance bronzes display is refreshing and reassuring.  Some are shown in the paintings galleries, with others grouped together in their own room.  The accompanying text is short and relevant.  If you  want to learn more, there are folders of information provided in the room.  These samizdat binders have none of the glossiness of the wall text for Greek vases, but the content is really useful.  Timothy Wilson, the Keeper responsible for these galleries, will be displaying the Michael Wellby gift of renaissance silver.  I can see why Wellby entrusted it to the Ashmolean, and I share his confidence that they'll do justice to his collection. 
I felt that I was being invited in to join a conversation about the renaissance bronzes.  The curators were sharing their knowledge and interest, giving anyone the chance to follow at least part of the way towards their expertise.  If they were dealing with a scene of Greek gay sex I suspect they'd hand out copies of Kenneth Dover's Greek Homosexuality and give you a quick update of the debate since then. 

I was actually angry when I first saw what they'd done with the display of Greek vases.  On sober reflection, I feel belittled.  It felt like the they were trying to flatter our preconceptions and then send us on our way.  They should have higher regard for their patrons, and we should be more critical and more demanding of our museums.  I'm not writing this from a position of any authority.  I'm just a museum visitor who'd like some help, and who appreciates curators sharing their expertise rather than fobbing me off with assurance that the important academics are debating stuff.  I'm sorry to be so grumpy about a museum I love so much, but this really won't do. 


  1. I write as one who is close to the curator responsible for the Greek gallery at the Ashmolean (but whether we shall be as close after I have sent off this blog without his knowledge I do not know). He copies me in to matters of professional interest, and I think I can go some way towards explaining, if not excusing, the rationale behind the new display. My friend would probably agree with much of what was said in criticism, and I think he would maintain that the fault lay with the way in which he and his colleagues had little or no say in the way the new galleries were to be presented. I believe that the chairman of the Museum’s governing body stated publicly that the curators were useless and that experts were to be brought in to show them how things should be done. These experts, I understand, insisted on making labels as simple—if not simple-minded—as possible, in the interests of what they called ‘accessibility’. The creation of a Blairite theme-park was the order of the day. Melanie McDonagh was not far off the mark when she wrote of ‘Noddy goes to the Ashmolean’.

    The labels that ended up in the final display had apparently been written, revised and dumbed down innumerable times thanks in large part to the efforts of the outside experts who even forbade the use of the word ‘century’; ‘too confusing for the general public’ was the message (there was, I gather, a rich moment when a curator asked at one of their regular public meetings ‘How then do I describe the 17th century?’; ‘the seventeen hundreds’ came the reply’).

    Somewhat paradoxically, the curators were encouraged to be ‘controversial’, but when criticism arrived, the powers that be gave in. The pot with the awkwardly written label about homosexuality in ancient Greece was, I understand, the result of a hurried compromise after the paedophiles of the world had risen as one to condemn its predecessor which said, crisply and to the point, ‘Paedophile and victim’ (they seem to regard it as a holy icon). The University’s Equality Officer was dragged into the fray, Lord knows why.

    As for artist’s names, my friend has long argued that they are a misleading modern construct, and I tend to agree with him, as do most scholars outside the ever-diminishing world of vase specialists. Look up ‘Art or Kitch’ in, and you will see where my pal is coming from.

  2. Thanks - that's very interesting (and alarming!). Point taken on assignment of responsibility; I'm glad the curators are off the hook, and mea culpa for pointing a finger in the wrong direction.

    I'm not really qualified to debate the artist names question, but it seems to me that there is very little downside to providing attributions for people who do consider them useful, especially as other museums continue to follow that convention. Surely where there is a signature, it's reasonable to tell us who signed it?