The most ambitious and complex project to date executed by the English artist Damien Hirst, the exhibition “Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable”, was almost ten years in preparation. The exhibition told the story of an – imagined- ancient wreck of a huge ship and its valuable cargo.
The question here is not how expensive and spectacular the exhibition at Palazzo Grassi in Venice was, but the approach taken by the artist.
Looking at the imagery, photographs, coral-covered ‘finds’, and videos of the alleged salvage, one is struck by how much they resemble the images of Franck Goddio’s excavations in Alexandria, Egypt, well-known for their pectacular photographs, among others. Hirst did not present dry statues, as one normally sees them in large museums, maritime museums or others. He preferred to ‘stage’ them.
We are delighted … Let us explain…
A piece of museum history – unfortunately live
When the history of archaeology began in the depths of the wells of Herculaneum, and the forced labourers of the Neapolitan king dug their fragile tunnels in lava and tuff from their ground, one had still a completely different idea of what the purpose of finds should be. In the early 18th century all was about the possession of treasures and their value. The king, Charles III of the Bourbons, had everything that was movable brought up from the depths below the volcano. Smaller frescoes were hacked by overzealous henchmen into pieces so as not to leave them to robbers. What was not recovered fell apart in the tunnels that filled with water. Little was recorded.
From then on, the king proudly possessed a collection of statues, frescoes and floors with which he could promote himself. And all of Europe envied him. He built a museum.
Even then, however, it seemed clear to Charles, the great Bourbon ruler, that the found objects had more potential than just underlining his wealth. When he left for Madrid to receive the royal crown of Spain, he left all the finds of Herculaneum in Naples instead of carrying them with him. Since then they have stood there, one beside the other, in display cases and on pedestals.
Archaeology has evolved since then. One no longer searches for treasures. One searches for stories, for the fates of people, for backgrounds.
Museums, however, have almost always remained the same.
The statues are still standing on their pedestals or in their showcases. So it is in Naples, so it is with the Venus of Milo in the Louvre, with the first finds from Herculaneum in Dresden, with the finds of the Antikythera shipwreck in the National Museum of Athens in Greece. And in thousands of other museums.
Found objects are still exhibited like in a trophy collection of a king, or, let’s say it more clearly, like in an antique shop without price tags. ‘Priceless’ is what we implicitly read. And otherwise we read such meaningful references as ‘Venus’, ‘statue’ or ‘philosopher’s head’. If we are lucky, we are informed whether we look at marble, bronze or clay, just in case we would not have guessed.
It is time, our museums evolve just as archaeology did.
Finally change the museums.
Modernise the museums
It seems surprising that the management of the National Museum of Naples never had the desire to recreate the Villa of the Papyri, the life in it and how it was rediscovered in their museum (while a well done try at it was made off the boundaries of the archaeological park in Herculaneum). It is also astonishing that the management of the National Museum in Athens has never regretted to conceal the amazing and fascinating story of the ship on which the ‘philosopher’s head’ was found. The story of the rediscovery of the Antikythera wreck is the beginning of modern underwater archaeology, which took place at a magnetically blue depth and is also a story of adventure and daring… which remains completely hidden in the aseptic dry museum in Athens, to the doom of underwater archaeology, which is struggling to survive as if it had never had any success.
One is tempted to suspect that it could be feared that the contextualization of the artefact could decrease its sales value… However, it is precisely this approach of overvaluing objects that encourages looting.
The situation is even worse when royal tombs are found. The Klondike seems to call. Gold. Treasures. Grave goods.
In such cases, it seems often that the respective director of the museum has forgotten any good upbringing and only has prices on his mind. Even modern exhibitions that have just been created usually show a collection of grave goods. The dead person is missing. Shown are pots, brooches, weapons. But the person who was actually buried is almost always missing in the story. And such ‘faux pas’ happen even when the buried person has been historically particulalry important.
Let us take as an example the exhibition of King Midas’ grave goods in Ankara, Turkey. The visitor is presented with a collection of pots. The king has been stowed away somewhere far away in a drawer.
Better examples already exist…
There are better ‘exceptions’. The Domus-Aurea tour in Rome is a true experience thanks to the virtual re-experienceable reconstruction of this palace of Nero. Equally attractive is the inclusion of underwater photographs in the exhibition of Nemi wreck finds, also in Rome. The people on the shipwreck can be admired at the Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth. And the skeleton of the dog from this wreck gathers more admirers in front of it than the gold coins issued nearby.
Hope can only be expressed that other museums will follow these pioneers and bring human history to the museum. Antique shops and museums should be two different things.
We are all waiting to finally read in the museum and not just in Wikipedia, where the Venus of Milo was found.