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Art in the Ancient World

In the summer of 2004, the Brigham Young University Museum of Art opened an exhibition entitled “Art of the Ancient Mediterranean World,” a 204-piece collection of ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman artifacts. Provo’s most popular newspaper, The Deseret News, lauded the exhibit—which was roughly 60% of a permanent showcase from the Boston Museum of Fine Art—“what is sure to be one of the most important, talked-about exhibitions of this year and next.” Yet the exhibition, all things considered, was odd in several ways.

First off, the exhibit was presented in its complete form—though I doubt this seems strange to those uninitiated with BYU’s history of academic freedom. The truth is that neither Brigham Young University, the premiere academy of Mormon learning, nor its Museum of Art have ever really lived down the PR fiasco they’d created in 1997-98 by banning four sculptures from the touring exhibition, “The Hands of Rodin.”

Despite the number of other censorship fiascos at BYU, banning Rodin has held people’s collective attention. During my time at BYU, professors still brought it up in my classes. Students and community members still discussed and puzzled over it. The claims of the time by Museum Director, Campbell Gray, that banning the four sculptures were “more a process of trying to ensure that the integrity of the exhibit is maintained,” or that "nudity isn't the issue, it's more the [lack of dignity]" still struck many BYU students and faculty as particularly hollow—this reported by Sunstone, a magazine of alternative Mormon thought. (You can an archived copy of their report at this address: And still further reading is available here.

Nor was the exhibition itself free of its own, different kind of oddness: a tension between art and the material object. Yes, I know that sounds a bit heady. “Art of the Ancient Mediterranean World” included a lot more archeological culture than creative culture—less sculpture, more utilitarianism. Put plainly, just things.

Art for the ancient Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans, seemed more an embedded aspect of lived experience. I expect that Walter Benjamin’s notion of art’s aura—one of the more seminal arguments by the 20th-century German Jewish philosopher and critic about art—would have confused these people, though not for the same reason Benjamin confuses us moderns. Where we add aura to an object (like a mace-head or jar of pottery) simply because it is displayed in a museum, I think the ancients would have balked at reverencing a simple jar (what we do) and simultaneously retreated from Benjamin’s notion that displaying an object, in a particular fashion, somehow grants it a greater essential importance. Things were simply things—things the Deseret News had pointed out which were “had and used, all well-made, functional and very beautiful.” Red-figure pottery might even be absorbing, but it was still plainly useful—whereas canopic jars already possessed their strong funerary import, their essential value already mixed up in their religious significance.

That is, of course, not to say that the Ancients didn’t revere: the hunt for the material objects of Alexander of Macedon’s everyday was most definitely a thing. Greatness grants its own importance to everyday things.

Perhaps the oddest oddity about “Art of the Ancient Mediterranean World” was how successful it was. How well the 204 pieces worked. How each piece was so darn well-presented. If the exhibition was ill-fitted to our expectations for art, and its presenters could not be trusted to be transparent, then the space itself seemed something of a “long con” as well. Because, frankly, the BYU Museum of Art is architecturally nondescript. Simple, even paltry—as unimpressive as the Mormon temples are impressive. Its outer walls are quarried stone, granite and marble, with few windows; its inner rooms neither well-lit nor overly large. Only the atrium invites some small awe, with a large geometric skylight. Having spent more than a few days of my life wandering the Victoria and Albert, British Museum, or the Natural History Museum in London, BYU’s museum does not structurally impress. Nobody gasps when they walk inside.

Yet at this exhibit, I did. This exhibit was captivating. Honestly, I felt as if I was half gasp and half held-breath the entire time. The museum’s many overhead lights had been turned down or were simply off totally. Its walls, normally white, were draped in black. Placards were used, yes, but often set demurely below the exhibited piece, at the edge of collected light—some you had to lean and squint to read. I took friends, twice, then three times. I told my mother about it, an avid Classicist herself who’d studied at UCLA under Richmond Lattimore. I went to the museum alone more times than I can remember to count.

Each piece, or grouping of pieces, under glass, was lit from above or below—and set, as often as possible, on transparent displays and a bed of black velvet or cloth. There was something vaguely funereal about the whole thing, as if striving against the exhibition underline that Egypt, Greece, and Rome had founded our modern world. Obsidian, jade, and gold articles floated in mid-air and seemed to cut the dark. Roman busts leapt out, unaccountably solid in their milky light. Coinage looked paradoxically real and otherworldly, like something you’d spend on the Styx.

What really arrested me was the pottery. Not only could you see the transition from the Archaic to Classical spelled out very plainly for your viewing pleasure, but the scenes themselves with their figures held stories that my mother had read to me in myth—bedtime stories from Edith Hamilton’s Greek Mythology or lifted from Ovid. Life, too, was pictured: athletes preparing for a race, sacrifices prepared for a festival. People had owned these things and used them, taken them for granted, pulled them out for company, ignored them, whatever. It was compelling to ponder.

Perhaps some of Benjamin’s aura snuck inside me to make a home—despite the exhibition’s materiality; despite my own mistrust of BYU’s setting and its reputation for censoring academic freedom. Yet images, snapshots of the mixing bowls and daggers, mace-heads and busts are still with me. But I suppose we do with memory like we do with the museum: the old growing with extra import.

The MFA, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, still keeps the collection from which this exhibition was drawn. You can read more about the collection here.

Stay Backwords! Matthew D. Kulisch

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