Boston’s famed Museum of Fine Arts, one of the world’s best, is revising the way it shows its renowned collection of ancient Greek art, and on Sept. 16 will open three interconnected permanent galleries.
Until now, the works from the 4th to 6th centuries B.C. had been organized chronologically to make it easier for viewers to trace their way through.
The new arrangement, the Wall Street Journal reported, will be in a renovated space and feature 230 pieces thematically divided into Homer and the Epics, Dionysus and the Symposium and Theater and Performance.
“These themes are at the heart of Greek culture,” the museum’s Curator of Greek and Roman art, Christine Kondoleon, told the paper.
She said the museum, which has arranged other collections similarly, isn’t changing the way it operates for good, calling the Greek presentation as “very specific to this group of objects, this installation, this curator.”
The MFA’s thematic galleries are part of a trend over the past decade or so, says Bruce Altshuler, director of New York University’s program in museum studies. “There’s a general feeling that personalized, narrative, thematic accounts are more accessible.”
Many pieces in the MFA galleries illustrate Homer’s epics, showing his broad influence on Greek culture, said Phoebe Segal, Assistant Curator of Greek and Roman art.
A 32-inch touch screen provides an overview of the Trojan War through scenes painted on six ceramic vases displayed nearby.
The MFA’s Homer gallery includes marble sculptures, terra cotta statuettes, bronze mirrors, coins, gems and a first-edition copy of Chapman’s English translation of The Iliad.
Segal said she especially likes the Athenian vase paintings. One, a salad bowl-sized vessel on display in the Homer gallery, depicts Helen of Troy’s reluctance to leave for Greece with Paris, a decision that sparked the Trojan War.
In contrast to most art that has survived from the era, the artists of this work are known: Makron, who painted the figures, and Hieron, who made the cup, put their names on it.
Makron, who worked around 490 to 480 B.C., is one of the best of the Athenian vase painters, known for oversize figures and fluid lines, Segal said.
She noted the hesitance evoked by a small curve in the drape of Helen’s robe – her left hand pulls her dress slightly away from Paris, demonstrating her innocence in the conflict. Though the Greeks laid much of the blame for the war on Helen, the robe “speaks to the ambivalence that the Greeks had about their own heroes,” Segal said.
PLENTY OF WINE PLEASE
The second gallery is dedicated to Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and theater, and the symposium, the Athenian tradition of good conversation sparked by good wine.
A silver case will display wine-related pieces used in symposiums, including a cup humorously shaped like a donkey’s head from around 480 B.C. Along with Aphrodite,
Dionysus is one of the two most frequently represented Greek gods in works of art, Segal said, in part because artifacts such as the gallery’s painted terra-cotta bowls and cups were designed for his worship.
Each of the 230 items in the collection received restoration treatments – some for the first time in a century—which required a full year’s work, conservationist Mei-An Tsu told the WSJ.
“My role is longevity and preservation” of the items, she added. “Hopefully, my work is invisible.”
The third and final gallery highlights performance. Many of the terra-cotta pieces illustrate scenes from lost plays; only around 30 complete plays of the era remain.
But fragmentary texts and plots have survived, and through a project called Looking Closer, the museum has installed an iPad to explain one of the illustrations.
It is on a terra cotta funerary vase that shows Achilles killing the foul-mouthed Greek soldier Thersites at a banquet, a scene not in Homer’s Iliad.
“The iPad takes you through in terms of the cast of characters—you can choose leading, supporting actors—or props,” said Curator of Education Barbara Martin. This feature also shows details in the vase’s painted surfaces that can be hard for the untrained eye to recognize.
Kondoleon compared the three ancient Greek galleries to seminar rooms. She said she imagines teachers from elementary school to college visiting the themed rooms and saying, “What can we learn about Homer through art?”
She adds, “They can go in and look at drama and say, ‘What are the foundations of our theater tradition, and comedy and tragedy?’ They can go into Dionysus and talk about the role of recitation … all the questions.”