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Let Us Set the Mental Juices Flowing
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Let Us Set the Mental Juices Flowing
Harrison Eiteljorg, II
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The American film director, Sidney Lumet, died on Saturday, April 9, 2011. He was famous for making movies that made the audience watch his characters deal with moral dilemmas. My own favorite was Twelve Angry Men. In the obituary of Mr. Lumet in the NY Times, he was quoted as saying, "While the goal of all movies is to entertain, the kind of film in which I believe goes one step further. It compels the spectator to examine one facet or another of his own conscience. It stimulates thought and sets the mental juices flowing." (See the front-page obituary published April 10, 2011, the day after his death. Online version: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/10/movies/sidney-lumet-director-of-american-classics-dies-at-86.html?_r=1, "SIDNEY LUMET, 1924-2011: A Director of Classics, Focused on Conscience," by Robert Berkvist, last accessed 4/11/11.)
I had already written most of this article when I saw that quotation, which I would paraphrase here as follows: While the goal of all museum exhibitions is to entertain and fascinate, the kind of archaeological exhibition in which I believe goes one step further. It stimulates thought and sets the mental juices flowing. This seems so relevant to me because I have seen two exhibitions in the last few weeks (and considered others from the more distant past) that caused me to wonder whether archaeological material in special exhibitions is too often displayed as if novelty and some common point of origin were sufficient rationales for the exhibitions. Such exhibitions do, after all, entertain and fascinate. That line of reasoning led to the root questions: How should an archaeological exhibition at a museum be composed? Should it try to present and explain an idea, a concept, or perhaps even a foreign culture to the audience? Or should it simply expose the audience to artifacts they might never see otherwise? In short, should a museum exhibition of archaeological material be only entertaining/fascinating or should it get the mental juices flowing?
The questions in the preceding paragraph may seem entirely academic, in the pejorative sense. However the two exhibitions I have seen recently make these questions both relevant and important. The first was Secrets of the Silk Road at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology; the second was Pompeii the Exhibit: Life and Death in the Shadow of Vesuvius at Discovery™ Times Square in New York City.
Both of these exhibitions put on display a large number of artifacts that the typical American would never have a chance to see absent such an exhibition. Secrets of the Silk Road is actually about only the portion of the Silk Road in what is now western China, roughly the area of the Taklamakan Desert. For most museum-goers, those objects from the Silk Road exhibition are more unusual and in some sense therefore more exciting because they are from such a remote place. For example, one object that received a great deal of publicity was a naturally mummified woman — given the name "The Beauty of Xiaohe," having been found in the Xiaohe Mudi cemetery — dating to a about 1800 B.C.E. and displaying red hair and other Caucasian features despite her presence in what is now a part of China, albeit not until relatively recently.
A mummified man — called "Yingpan Man" — was too fragile to be sent outside China, but his cloth robe includes Roman putti as a design element, making this viewer's mouth fall open in wonder. A relatively late and loosely-dated find among those on display, this man was also buried with a Roman glass bowl.
The knitted cap worn by a mummified child (from the 8th century B.C.E.) was especially intriguing to me. The bright blue color was stunning, and it made me wonder what kind of dye had been used (a question not answered — indigo?). Many other objects were similarly fascinating, and it is impossible to discuss them all. But it is difficult not to mention the pastry desserts that were effectively preserved by the dry desert climate.
Similarly, the number, scope, and variety of the objects on display in New York at the Pompeii exhibition were extremely impressive. Not only were there very large fresco fragments (mostly from the House of the Golden Bracelet), but there were many body casts of those who died in Pompeii. (In fact, the emphasis on those casts in the advertising for the exhibition initially set me up to expect something long on the sensational and short on the substantive. Fortunately, the exhibition was, in fact, long on the substantive.) In addition to the artifacts — ceramics, coins, metal containers, tools, and much more — there were detailed wall-hung text panels concerning the development of archaeological techniques at Pompeii and similar panels detailing the history of Vesuvius. There was even a movie of the 1944 eruption than had been taken by American military personnel stationed nearby.
The centerpiece of the exhibition was a 3D reconstruction of the city during the eruption process presented as a video. As viewers watched, the volcano (in the distance with part of the city in the foreground) was shown passing through the stages of the eruption of 79 C.E., and occasional notes on screen showed the times of different parts of the eruption process as the buildings in the city slowly collapsed. Unfortunately, the video display was a kind of choke point. Visitors had to pass through the room where it was shown to go from the first portion of the exhibition to the last. Once through that room, visitors were not allowed to move back to the first portion of the exhibition. (Also a negative, the video had no narration. As a result the pyroclastic flow at the conclusion of the video might have seemed to a typical viewer to have been a tsunami, and that viewer would have had little or no way to understand the reality.)
Both of these exhibitions had many items that were fascinating, informative, and unique. Both also featured a great deal of information (though the labels at the Pompeii exhibition were difficult to read). However, despite the wonders on display in Philadelphia and New York and despite finding both exhibitions to be extremely interesting, I came away from both without a sense of what the public might know or understand as a result of attending either exhibition, how their mental juices might start flowing. In neither case did there seem to me to be a clear and unambiguous rationale for the exhibition beyond the obvious — all the objects were related either to the (western Chinese portion of the) Silk Road or to Pompeii.
For me Secrets of the Silk Road missed an opportunity to explain to the public how trade routes that had existed virtually from time immemorial had coalesced into what we now call the Silk Road. As a consequence, the exhibition lost the distinction — which should have been critical in my opinion — between the routes upon which trade goods had been carried for millennia before silk was among those goods and the same routes at the later period when silk did move along them. Perhaps because the two versions of the trade routes were not clearly distinguished or because the time span covered was so long, the items on display were not placed in an explicit and clear chronological context. As a result, important chronological issues were left unexplained; neither the long duration of the trade routes nor the chronological range of the objects on display was clear, and nothing seemed to me to speak to the issues of change and development over time. I would be quite willing to wager that most of those who saw the exhibition did not realize that the objects on display spanned a period from roughly 4,000 years ago to the fourteenth century C.E.
Similarly the Pompeii exhibition, despite an unexpectedly large number of artifacts made available, seemed to me to fail at placing those objects in context. For instance, each of the frescoes from the House of the Golden Bracelet simply stood on a wall like a painting, presenting the viewer with no sense of the space in which it had once existed or the functions it had once fulfilled. In fact, until near the very end of the show, long after the frescoes were seen (and after the video so that visitors were not permitted to return to the frescoes) there was not a single house plan or other indicator of the settings for these frescoes. Yet what makes Pompeii so unique and important is the fact that we have the artifacts in context in a well-preserved ancient city. The artifacts are not the whole story; the artifacts, their contexts, and the resulting understanding are the story.
I recognize full well that exhibitions like these must be very carefully planned in order to attract audiences in the numbers required to cover the costs of the exhibition, to avoid boring those audiences with large expanses of text, and to garner publicity and positive reviews that will help bring large numbers of visitors. Doing so is certainly not easy, and a heavy-handed approach to a didactic purpose would be self-defeating. Nevertheless, I would argue that an archaeological exhibition without a firmer sense of purpose is a wasted opportunity. While people are looking at and reading about the objects, we have an opportunity to inform and excite them and to encourage the kinds of questions that make the study of archaeology more than simply the study of the things people left behind — just as Mr. Lumet added intellectual stimulation to his engrossing films.
It is all too easy to be a critic in a case such as this. The natural — and reasonable — question is, "So, what would you have done?" With some trepidation, therefore, I offer the following.
For the Pompeii exhibition, I believe there was room to have set up a model of the city at a small scale but large enough to have some detail and to show the arrangements of houses, shops, public spaces, and so on, permitting discussion of the surprising juxtaposition of the commercial, retail, public, and residential spaces throughout the city. In addition, there could have been a full-scale reproduction of enough of the House of the Golden Bracelet so that the frescoes could have been seen in something approaching their original surroundings. In such a "house" many of the objects on display could also have been placed in appropriate places so that they could have been discussed in terms of their original uses. A similar display of a shop or two (perhaps a bakery or a thermopolium) would have provided a non-domestic example. The result would have been a far more complete understanding of life in Pompeii without the need to beat visitors about the head and shoulders with huge expanses of text.
For the Silk Road exhibition, I would envision two partially-separated display spaces, one for the objects predating the time when silk was commercially carried along the trade routes and another for the later period when these trade routes had become truly the Silk Road. That basic division/distinction would lead naturally to discussion of the evolution of the trade routes. The room dedicated to the earlier phase of these trade routes would require some text panels to explain the nature of trade over such routes in the very early periods of their use (e.g., for trading lapis lazuli from Afghanistan to Egypt in the predynastic period). But that would also permit other objects, perhaps from Egypt, for instance, to be brought into the exhibition so as to expand the visitors' horizons. It would also have led naturally to discussions of the people in western China as parts of these trading systems — both the proper Silk Road and its predecessor.
I acknowledge that the foregoing is quite vague. There are no details, and the majority of each exhibition remains to be fleshed out. Nevertheless, I believe that a visitor would be better served by starting with such an outline and trying to make archaeological material more than a curiosity. Archaeology should not be seen as a fascination with the objects of the past; it should be seen as the study of objects in context so as to lead to a better, fuller understanding of the past and thus of humanity writ large. The objects are the evidence from which we try to flesh out the past. They should help tell a story; they should not be the story.1
A footnote. Trying to think of an exhibition that meets the criteria Mr. Lumet and I have set forth, I could only recall one exhibition of archaeological material that fit the bill, and it was non-standard in every way. It was an exhibition in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens in 2007, and the objects were actually reproductions of ancient Greek sculpture, all painted as they would have been in antiquity. There were not many objects, and they were all reproductions. As a result, this was an archaeological exhibition very different from the norm. The focus was only on the importance of color to sculpture and viewer; as a result, the exhibition had an impact out of proportion to its size and complexity. It was very much the kind of exhibition I have in mind as I write here, having a core idea with which the viewer had to wrestle but not full of text to make the point. But it was also far smaller, far simpler, and far more limited in scope than the typical exhibition. It makes me wonder if smaller, more focused exhibition are really better for presenting ideas. I don't really think so, but I do think that an exhibitor who hopes to tell a story must begin with that story in mind and work very hard to keep the telling of the story in the forefront.
-- Harrison Eiteljorg, II
1. The passing of Lewis Binford was announced after this article had been written. It seems appropriate here to point out the obvious. What Professor Binford wanted professional archaeologists to do — think about the revelations that artifacts provide about ancient ways — is what I want museums to do as well. Although his field work was primarily about periods earlier than those treated in the exhibitions discussed above, the same principle applies. Artifacts are a means to an end, not the end itself. Return to text.
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