I recently had the pleasure of attending the exhibit entitled “The Greeks: From Agamemnon to Alexander the Great” at the National Geographic Museum. As a lifelong devotee of the classics and an avid museum-goer, it was quite compelling to see the world of the ancient Greeks brought to life, with a number of exquisite artifacts from various museums throughout Greece on magnificent display.
I have to say, I really enjoyed the exhibit, both in the vast scope of what it included as well as the information displayed. While most people usually think of classical Athens as the epitome of Greek culture, there was a great deal both before and after, and the National Geographic Museum did a fine job displaying objects from throughout the history of ancient Greece, including objects from Minoan Crete, Mycenae, classical Athens, and Macedon.
I was particularly excited to see both the objects from Mycenae and from the kingdom of Macedonia. In terms of Mycenae, it was really quite thrilling to see one of the masks that the archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann believed belonged to the infamous King Agamemnon from The Iliad. There is always something particularly unsettling about these death-masks, and that is certainly true in this case. These are objects that convey an admittedly dim impression of the actual face of the deceased, but one cannot shake the feeling that one is standing in the presence of the ghosts of the past, a ghostly and ethereal reminder of lives past. While only one of the masks was actually from the tomb (the other, more famous, was shown in a replica), it was still a phenomenal experience to see these icons of the ancient world in actual space.
There is something even more unsettling about the helmets that have been excavated from various tombs. Again, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the presence of the dead was everywhere in the room, suffusing the entire exhibit with an aura of faded, yet still potent, grandeur. These were the most powerful and skilled men in their world, now reduced to nothing more than empty helmets in a lavish room, a humbling reminder of the exquisite ephemerality of the human experiment.
The true highlight of the Macedonian section, however, was the crown belonging to Queen Meda, the seventh and final wife of Philip II and the only one permitted to be buried with him in his official tomb. Further, there was also a small medallion with a portrait of Olympias, which the caption claimed was the only verified likeness that we have of her. Needless to say, as a fan of the powerful women of the ancient world, it was quite thrilling to see bits and pieces of their lives, reminders that even in the most patriarchal societies there was still the possibility of revolt and subversion.
At the formal level, I actually appreciated that there has been a shift from live-action reenactments to heavily stylized cartoons. For better or worse, the old style of reenactment has become rather blase, and it is often difficult to take them seriously, even in the most serious environment. Fortunately, these new animations looked very similar to the Greek vase paintings, allowing them to remain aesthetically woven into the fabric of the exhibit as a whole.
I do, however, have one complaint to make about the exhibit, and that is the resolute straight-washing that permeates its entire ethos. Some of the incidents are minor, such as referring to Patroclus as Achilles’ friend, when even the ancient Greeks believed they were lovers. Others, however, are significant omissions that present a skewed vision of ancient Greek culture. There was no mention (or none that I saw) of the same-sex relationships that were key to practically every Greek city-state, whether it was the institutionalized pederasty of Athens and Sparta or the Sacred Band of Thebes. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, but it is still distressing to see this historical blindspot in 2016, after generations of classicists and historians have worked so hard to not only bring the presence of same-sex desire into the open but also to show how historically contingent it is (and remains). This is a major shortcoming of the exhibit, in my view, a wasted opportunity to explore the Greeks’ contradictory thoughts about same-sex desire.
Overall, however, I would say that this is a successful exhibit and does a great deal to bring to light the strange and compelling nature of the world of the ancient Greeks. For all that they are looked to as one of the foundations of Western culture, civilization, and government, there was much about their way of being and looking at the world that is completely foreign to and different from our own. This exhibit, fortunately, makes a significant contribution in helping the modern subject to understand that strangeness.