'Ancient Mediterranean' a thoroughly modern and jarring museum show at the Field
The title of the new Field Museum exhibition, "Ancient Mediterranean Cultures in Contact," makes it sound more important, perhaps, than exciting. Here comes, you might think, another well-curated look at artifacts from the cradle of western civilization.
But enter the galleries where this show lives, and you quickly realize this one is telling a different story, it is using an updated language to do so, and the effect is to bring those great old storage jars and sarcophagi, that serene-looking mummy and those miraculously preserved tunics, into sharper focus.
"Ancient Mediterranean" is an uncommonly modern museum exhibition, one that finds a place for a child's wool and linen tunic, a kind of shirt, from the first millennium A.D. and for a child's life jacket, a device found empty on a Greek island beach two years ago amid the current global refugee crisis.
2015's "The Greeks" at the Field was a breathtaking collection of 500 items from that culture, developed by several museums, and therefore presented in a more traditional manner. "Ancient Mediterranean," because it is a Field show, can take more risks, explained Bill Parkinson, the Field anthropologist behind the show.
And it makes them pay off. It is meant to be a little bit jarring, and not only in the ever-present storage vessels.
"I wanted it to be jarring," Parkinson said. When a show is about an idea rather than a people, "when it doesn't start with 'The,' " he said, "you really need to hit people in the gut. We'll see if it's too jarring."
The first thing the visitor will see, when "Ancient Mediterranean" opens Friday, is a television screen showing contemporary news stories. Their common theme is how happenings in one part of the world affect people in another: the recent avocado shortage in Mexico jacking the price of guacamole in the U.S., to cite probably the least harrowing example.
And that is the point this exhibition drives home: We are all of us interconnected, from the butterfly famously flapping its wings and changing global weather patterns to the farmer wringing his hands over an unexpectedly low avocado yield, which leads to the couple in Omaha ordering the jalapeno poppers instead.
And so it has been for as long as clusters of human society have been bumping up against one another. "Ancient Mediterranean" finds a particularly fascinating time and place to explore these themes, the countries surrounding its titular sea primarily in the 500 years before and after Christ. The cultures then were the Greeks, the Romans, the Egyptians and the Etruscans, all of whom, eventually, came under Roman rule.
"We didn't want you to miss that this is a story that wants you to reflect on the world today," said Jaap Hoogstraten, the museum's director of exhibits. " 'People move. Objects move. Ideas move.' It's like a chorus."
And once you start thinking in those terms, he said, you begin to see that story everywhere. It happened this week to Hoogstraten, a native Dutchman transplanted to Chicago, when he was eating a bowl of pho, the Vietnamese broth-based dish, on Argyle Street, one of Chicago's most immigrant-rich locales.
"When you hang out with archaeologists, it changes your perspective on things," he said.
For all of the engaging interpretation at play, the core of "Ancient Mediterranean" is still a divine assemblage of artifacts. Its roughly 100 objects, from tiny cross-cultural coins to a large chunk of wall fresco from Roman culture, are all from the Field's collection, with the exception of a handful of things borrowed from neighbors the Art Institute and the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute.
And each piece, whether it's the water system valve from ancient Pompeii or the death masks that demonstrate the merging of Egyptian and Roman traditions, tells a bigger story. Even the museum building itself, the show points out, owes its architecture to the ancient Greeks.
Throughout, the text explicitly ties the then to the now. A gold and pearl Italian necklace from the 300s or 400s was a luxury good for the elites. Beside it is a similar looking, but cheaper version for the masses, with glass in place of precious stones. It's a version of today's high-fashion knockoffs, the text explains.
A roughly 3-foot tall clay, closed-top vase, the Egyptian amphora on display was 'the shipping crate of the ancient world," the show explains. Thousands of them have been found in shipwrecks. This one is displayed in a dramatic backdrop suggesting a downed ship's partial framework, and it probably contained either olive oil, wine or grain when its transport vehicle sank.
Razors from the metalworking tradition in Etruria, an Italian civilization that the developing Roman Empire quickly subsumed, traveled throughout the world. The one on display is in a sort of crescent moon shape, small enough to fit in pocket or pouch. It's not too much of a stretch to imagine a company marketing a modern version: "Trust your face to the Etruscans. Shave the way the ancients did."
A few examples of Roman-made redware, a quickly produced and widely distributed tableware, drive home the idea the Henry Ford was following in a long tradition, and so is Crate & Barrel. Mass produced oil lamps are on exhibit, as well.
When the wall text tries to compare the development and dissemination of specialized production techniques to the current spread of ride-sharing apps like Uber, that's the one false note in the show's attempts to relate the two eras. While it was probably a kick to be able to say "Uber" on the same card as "first centuries AD,"ride-sharing is a service, not a good.
But, yes, technology — good ideas and the means to implement them — does tend to spread. A Roman coin from about 28 B.C. declaring "Egypt is captured" was minted in Turkey.
So does language. Visitors will see the base from a statue of a Greek queen ruling in Egypt. The only Greek is her name; the rest of the writing is in Egyptian hieroglyphs. They will see an Etruscan sarcophagus, a large stone coffin, painted with flowers and sea monsters in style suggesting Greek influence. They'll see the Rosetta Stone — only in photograph, alas — a prime example of Mediterranean cultural collision; its royal decree was carved in hieroglyphs, demotic Egyptian and ancient Greek and, of course, provided scholars the long-sought key to deciphering Egyptian writing.
"What's interesting to me about the material is how the Etruscan stuff is obsessed with Greece, obsessed with Egypt," said Parkinson, who does his field work researching ancient societies.
Getting the museum's Etruscan and Roman material before the public was one impetus for the exhibit; it hasn't been displayed in such concentration since 1922, when the Field opened at its present location, he said.
"The concept is brilliant," said Emily Teeter, a research associate at the Oriental Institute on hand for the press preview. "It's not overly complicated and it creates a connection with the viewer."
"Also," she added, "I think it's a really attractive show."
It is undeniably arresting. The lettering is as bold as the lighting. There is curation, not overcrowding: The objects sit in their cases like topic sentences rather than items in a mid-paragraph list. The few screens and interactives — a touch-screen take-out menu highlighting the way cuisines of the era merged; a sistrum, like a tambourine, to shake and a water valve to turn — call attention to the message, not to themselves.
And then, most strikingly, the concluding gallery brings you full-on into the modern era, a bookend with the news video at the exhibition's outset. Here is where you'll find an iPhone case, a red plastic gasoline vessel, the child's life jacket, all showing how people, ideas and objects keep on moving. Video screens display the contemporary global flow of freight ships and of refugees.
Or is that the last gallery? To rejoin the rest of the museum, you exit, naturally, through the gift shop, and you discover that it has more to say about cultural connections. The official "Ancient Mediterranean" T-shirts were made in Nicaragua and Mexico. The travel mug bearing the show's logo is from China.
When: Friday through April 29
Where: The Field Museum, 1400 S. Lake Shore Drive
Tickets: Included with $30 Discovery Pass; 312-922-9410 or www.fieldmuseum.org
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