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A short guide to the Museum of Ancient Art – Print and bring along!
The Museum of Ancient Art is a university museum at Aarhus University and originates from a
study collection, which was established in 1949 by the first professor of Classical archaeology Dr.
P. J Riis. The collection consisted of 500 original pieces on loan from the National Museum of
Denmark – mainly Greek pottery, statuettes and kleinkunst. The collection functioned exclusively
as a study collection for the students of classical archaeology and philology but opened to the
public in newly built exhibition rooms in 1971. In 2004, the upper floor was totally refurbished,
providing the museum with a new entrance area and lobby, and resulting in a reorganisation of
the collections. The lower level of the museum was totally renovated in 2013 and parts of the
exhibition is still under development.
Today, the collection consists of 4000 original pieces acquired through loans, gifts and purchases,
and 500 plaster casts of Ancient sculpture. The museum’s permanent exhibitions presents the
history, culture and art of the Ancient civilizations from Egypt, Greece and Rome, but is also
home to a newly opened exhibition on the Etruscans. The museum is active both in research and
teaching at Aarhus University, especially focussing on Art History, Classical Archaeology,
Philology and collaborates with several Danish and international academic institutions on the
continuous research into the collections and development of the exhibitions.
The museum continuously displays temporary exhibitions, focussing mainly on the exploration
of topical themes of the Ancient world, or on contemporary Danish and international artist’s
reception of Antiquity. The museum furthermore presents academic lectures on current topics in
Classical archaeology and Egyptology.
Please see the museum web site for programme for the activities and updates.
Museum opening hours:
Monday 12 -16
Tuesday 12 -16
Wednesday 12 -16
Thursday 12 – 16
Sunday 12 -16
Admission is free. Guided tours are available upon request to secretary Knud Asbjørn RavnJonsen at [email protected]/ 0045 87161106
The Museum of Ancient Art offers free coffee and tea, but kindly request that they are enjoyed in
the cosy lobby and not brought into the exhibitions.
The Guide
The guide presents six selected themes from the permanent exhibitions.
The Plaster Casts
Archaic Greece: Religion and Social status
Athens and the Parthenon: A Monument to Greatness
Laokoon: An Ancient Masterpiece
The Etruscans: Life and Afterlife
Ta-Bast: An Ancient Egyptian
The Plaster Casts
While some of the plaster casts are quite recent acquirements, many of them are antiquities
themselves with a quite dramatic history. When Aarhus’ first museum opened in 1877, it
exhibited Danish art, historical and archaeological remains from the local area and, like many
other European museums of the time, plaster casts of Ancient sculpture. The art of the Ancients
were seen as the pinnacle of artistic prowess in European history, and the exhibition of plaster
casts in museums ensured that ordinary citizens had access to this central part of the European
cultural heritage. However, in the early 20th century plaster casts began to be seen as
“unauthentic” and were removed from exhibitions across Europe. In Aarhus Museum, the
increased focus on local history and culture meant that the collection of plaster casts was no
longer seen as relevant to the exhibitions. In 1950, the collection was given to the Classical
archaeological study collection at Aarhus University and have since 1971 been publicly
accessible yet again.
The plaster cast of the pedimental sculpture from the temple of Aphaia from the island of Aigina,
Greece, is an example of how plaster casts may provide us with information. The sculpture
depicts a fighting scene from the Trojan war under the auspices of Athena, the goddess of just
war, crafts and wisdom.
The sculpture adorned the temple of Aphaia, a local goddess from the island of Aigina just outside
of Athens. The temple was built in around 500 BC and the sculpture is from ca. 490 BC. The
pediment sculpture was found in 1811 and was subsequently bought by King Ludwig the Ist for
his newly opened Glytothek in Munich, where they can still be seen today. In keeping with the
fashion of the day, the fragmented sculptures were restored heavily by the Danish sculptor Bertel
Thorvaldsen in the 1820’ies. This plaster cast is a rendering of this version, and is now an
historical document, since the originals in Munich were de–restored in the 1960’ies. The plaster
cast now in the Museum of Ancient art is a rare document of how the Neoclassicistic restorations
looked – and quirky details such as the rendering of the bows, which are of a type first invented
in the Middle Ages, show us that Thorvaldsen used his artistic licence in the restoration process.
Archaic Greece: Religion and Social Status
(First floor on the right.)
The Archaic period in Greece (ca. 750 – 480 BC) is represented in the museum by a series of
plaster casts of sculpture and original pieces of pottery and clay figurines. The Archaic period
was an age of discovery in Greece. The Greeks set sails and travelled across the Mediterranean
Sea to found colonies in Southern Italy, Turkey, The Black Sea region and in Egypt. In Egypt, the
Greeks saw life size sculptures of humans for the first time. This had a profound effect on Greek
art, and from ca. 630 BC the Greeks began to make large sculptures in human form themselves.
The two most famous types were the Kouroi, the young men, and the Korai, the young women.
These two types were often used as grave markers or as dedications: gifts to the gods. In the
Museum of Ancient Art we have a series of plaster casts of dedications from the Acropolis of
Athens. The korai, the young women, are all depicted in the same way: they are wearing a long
dress, have long braided hair and are holding one of their hands forth. While the hands are
broken of, we know that they carried small gifts for the deity – most likely Athena – such as
pomegranates and doves. A kouros, called the calf-bearer, show us that the goddess also received
larger gifts, such as cattle, which were slaughtered and served at religious feasts. The statues
were bought and presented to the goddess by private persons and stood on the Acropolis as a
permanent symbol of personal piety. They had inscriptions, which identified the dedicator by
name, and thus also functioned as a social display of godliness and economic status.
The plaster casts of two young riders on their horses are pure show off: the Greeks did only use
horses for war – and only to ride to the battlefield and then dismount to fight. Owning a horse
was thus a large expense with no return other than the display of wealth and status, and
displaying yourself on a horse on the Acropolis was a way of making sure that everybody knew
about your social status. War was a central aspect of life Archaic Greece, and this may be why the
kouroi were always depicted naked. In Greece male nudity was connected with sports and heroic
fighting. The kouroi thus embodied the ideal, able-bodied youth who kept his body fit for fight, in
case his city needed defending.
Athens and the Parthenon: A monument to Greatness
(First floor on the left)
The museum exhibits a suite of plaster casts of the sculptural decoration of the Parthenon
temple. The metopes, frieze and east pediment of the temple dedicated to Athena on the Athenian
Acropolis can all be seen here. The temple is a monument to a city on the pinnacle of its power. It
was built from 447-432 BC under the rule of Pericles, the Athenian general and leader of the
democratic city-state during the Peloponnesian wars. Athens in the mid-fifth century BC, the
height of the Classical period, was the most powerful city in the Greek world. The Persian wars
had been won mainly thanks to the Athenian fleet at the Battle of Salamis in 480 BC, but the
victory had come at a cost. While the Athenians were fighting at Salamis, the Persian army sacked
Athens, raising the Acropolis with all its sanctuaries to the ground. The Athenians were so
shocked by this assault, that they vowed never to rebuild the temples on the rock. This resolution
did not last long. Athens, now a strong naval power, became the leader of the Delian League, a
military association of Greek cities to protect the Greek lands from Persian attacks. All cities paid
a fee to the association’s treasury, which was on the Island of Delos. In 454, Pericles moved the
treasury to Athens, giving the city the ultimate right of disposal of the funds. In time, the Delian
League turned into an Athenian Empire, the member cities essentially being subject states to
Athens, contributing to the city’s wealth trough taxation. It was within this context, the Athenians
decided to rebuilt the Temple of Athena on the Acropolis.
The famous sculptor Pheidias created the sculptural decoration, which depicted mythological
and religious scenes. The East pediment displays the birth of Athena, the patron goddess of the
city amidst the Olympian gods. Athena sprang fully dressed and armed from the head of Zeus.
The pediment was partly destroyed in 1687 during the war between the Ottoman Empire and
Venetian Republic, robbing us of the central scene and leaving us with our imaginations to
envisage how it may have looked. The metopes depict a series of mythical battles between the
good – symbolised by the gods and the Greeks – and evil – embodied by centaurs, giants and
Amazons. Through the display of these myths on the Parthenon, the Athenians cast themselves in
the role as the protectors of the gods, Greece and all that was good, against forces of evil, such as
the Persians. The frieze show the Panathenaic Procession, a festival held each year in the honour
of the goddess. Athena was brought a new dress, and sacrifices and religious feast celebrated her.
The Athenians on the frieze are strong, beautiful and young: riding horses and chariots, carrying
various offerings to the goddess in a display of the piety and wealth of the city for all to see.
The Etruscans - a Journey to the Land of the Dead
(Lower level, straight ahead)
The exhibition texts are both in Danish and English. “The Etruscans – a Journey to the Land of the
Dead” is displayed at the Museum of Ancient Art until 2018 and is funded by Aarhus University in
commemoration the 50th anniversary of Her Majesty the Queen Margrethe II’s archaeological
studies at Aarhus University. Her Majesty the Queen maintains an interest in archaeology,
international as well as national, and has participated in excavations in Etruria.
Through a range of original objects, the exhibition explores the ideas of death and afterlife in
Etruria, an area in modern day Toscana. The Etrurians maintained a flourishing culture of
independent city-states in the 7th and 6th centuries BC. They traded intensely with both Greeks
and Phoenicians, but maintained a distinct cultural identity, which is expressed in the remains of
their material culture. The Etruscans were deeply religious and believed strongly in an afterlife.
Their graves were thus equipped with everything the departed may need in the next life, and
represent one of the strongest sources for our knowledge of this people. From the 4th to the 1st
century BC the Etruscan cities were gradually conquered by the Roman Empire, and their culture
slowly died out.
Ta – Bast: An Ancient Egyptian
(Lower level, to the left)
The mummy of Ta – Bast is something of a mystery. Ta – Bast was a priestess and singer
dedicated to the Egyptian god Amun, god of the Sun and protector of the city of Thebes. When Ta
– Bast died in ca. 1000 BC, her body was mummified and she was buried in a coffin decorated
with magical hieroglyphs and depictions of rituals, which ensured her safe passage into the
Afterlife. The quality of her mummification was not high, and only her skeleton remains.
How Ta – Bast ended up in Aarhus is still unknown, but she came to the Museum of Ancient Art in
the 1950. Since then, her coffin and skull was exhibited in the Museum of Ancient Art, while her
body was exhibited in the Steno Museum in their exhibition on health through history. Ta – Basts’
body was returned to the Museum of Ancient Art in 2013. A project exploring her origins and her
life and death is now underway. This will ultimately lead to a new exhibition on Ta-Bast, which
will present her and her story in an evocative, educational and respectful way.
Looking at the bones of Ta-Bast, we may conclude that she, despite her relatively high social
status and sheltered life and a temple singer, were plagued by several ailments. When she died,
she was approximately 35 – 40 years old, which was the average time of death for adults in
ancient Egypt. The Egyptians were especially plagued by water-borne diseases, bouts of plague
and tuberculosis, while malnutrition, hunger and attacks from wild animals such as snakes and
hippos also took their toll. Ta – Bast had suffered a fall sometime in her life, which had fractured
her tailbone and spinal column. The spinal column healed, but some of the vertebras fused,
leaving her permanently hunchbacked. She furthermore suffered from bladder stones. Thus, her
life seems to have been hard and short, but further research may enable us to know other aspects
of her life and solve the mystery of how an woman who died in Egypt 3000 years ago ended up in