Sunday, 13 October 2013

Things and Images of Things

Pompeian Fresco representing a give away of bread
I saw the British Museum exhibition Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum the first time last April, with a crowd of archeologists. I wanted to see it again and take my time to look at how things were exhibited and communicated. When I was there with my notebook, I couldn’t help paying attention to what people were saying looking at the artefacts.
As museum studies have largely proved, going to museum’s exhibitions is a social activity. And part of the pleasure is in discussing and commenting the items seen together.

I found two of the conversations I overheard particularly relevant, although in a different way.
The first one needs a little contextualisation first. The BM exhibited some of the objects next to their representations in frescoes. I have noticed that the audience liked this kind of display very much and it was explicitly brought up during my interviews. I can only agree that it was very effective, from a communicative point of view. 

Carbonised loaf of Bread. British Museum Website
The connection between the two items immediately made them both more interesting and, in a way, I think it made them both more “real”, as if they were baking up each other. My first reaction too was to research the similarities between the ancient thing and its depiction. And the carbonised loaf of bread, which is already one of the most well known and powerful Pompeian finds, looks indeed very alike the ones showed in the related fresco. There was another quite successful example with actual silverware and painted one. The comments, in both cases, were really favorable.

On the one hand, it supports my idea that showing connections between things enhances their informative value. On the other hand, I wonder if it is appropriate for an archaeological museum to disseminate the idea that ancient frescoes show exact and realistic (in the may we intend it today) representation of things and places. In other words, are frescoes and other pieces of art documentation of the past?

Fresco from the Villa of P. F. Sinistore, Boscoreale
Now exhibited in the Metropolitan Museum
I have seen in the archeological museum of Taranto the objects found in burials exhibited next to statues or paintings of the same age showing how those earrings, or pins or brooches were probably worn. I thought it was a very informative display, especially because many of the found objects were incomplete and not always easy to imagine in use. However, when I was studying 3D visualisation during my MA, I was warned against the temptation of considering artistic representations as a “proof” of the past. I do agree that a pictorial clue can be extremely useful but I also think that it can be a bit controversial, especially when we look at cultures that had a different idea of “naturalism” than we do. What should we think of the intricate and nearly impossible architectures represented in the Villa of Publio Fannio Sinistore? It is very unlikely that it is a “realistic” representation of the urban landscape of Campania. And what about ancient Egyptians walking and talking in pretty uncomfortable positions?  

Hence, I am not entirely sure a cultural institution like the British Museum should actually promote the idea of the one-to-one relationship between ancient artefact and their image in ancient art.

Not even if it works sooooo well for the public.

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