Celebrating Competition and the Spoils of Imperialism
Emily May, Master of Museum and Heritage Studies graduate
The National Museum of Australia (NMA) recently hosted more than 170 ancient Greek artefacts, on loan from the British Museum. Ancient Greeks: Athletes, Warriors and Heroes opened on 17 December 2021 and runs until 1 May 2022. Through sculpture, jewellery, armour, and ceramics, the exhibition tells stories of competition in ancient Greece. This marks the first time many of these objects have travelled to the southern hemisphere and, in several cases, the first time they have left the British Museum since their acquisition.
Following a 12-month delay, Ancient Greeks concludes a four-part series of exhibitions jointly organised by the NMA and the British Museum. It follows Rome: City and Empire (2018), A History of the World in 100 Objects (2016), and Encounters: Revealing Stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Objects from the British Museum (2015). On the basis of a Wednesday afternoon visit, the exhibition is evidently a success. Even mid-week, there were sold-out ticket-slots, people present until closing, and a large variety of visitors. It was easy to lose sense of time and there was no shortage of attraction, with atmospheric lighting, clear sections that segued smoothly, no overly loud music, and detailed yet concise and accessible information.
From the visitor’s perspective, Ancient Greeks provides a novel experience, rewarding return visits and enticing those who may otherwise have overlooked the NMA. Some of these visitors might have explored other areas while at the Museum, including the permanent exhibition First Australians and the newly opened Talking Blak to History. Here, objects tell stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, raising themes of survival and resilience, the Stolen Generation, land rights, and deaths in custody. While these reveal oppression and imperial violence, they also celebrate Indigenous culture, exploring sovereignty and ‘cultural renaissance’. Talking with the ABC, Margo Neale, head of the NMA’s Indigenous Knowledges Curatorial Centre, explained that Talking Blak to History is intended to challenge ‘the dominant narrative of Australia’s history’, take ownership of Indigenous history and providing a space for Indigenous voices to be heard.
The NMA’s Mission Statement contends that their aim ‘is to bring the world's cultures to Australia and present Australia's history and culture to the world.’ Ancient Greeks and First Australians fulfil these goals categorically. Regarding Ancient Greeks, The NMA’s Director, Dr Mathew Trinca, explains in the exhibition text that their partnership with the British Museum fulfils a promise ‘to bring great collections from across the world to [our] shores, as we in turn take our treasures of Australian life abroad.’
While this might fulfil the goals of the NMA, when Ancient Greeks is exhibited alongside First Australians, some uneasy parallels become evident to those who aware of how the British acquired much of their museums’ contents (although, it should be noted that many objects in Ancient Greeks were acquired from official archaeological digs or as diplomatic gifts, speaking to a parallel but distinct lineage of cultural contact and exchange). Where First Australians highlights the violence faced by Indigenous Australians in direct response to British imperialism, Ancient Greeks uses the spoils of said imperialism to arouse wonder over a different ancient culture. Like the controversy surrounding the Parthenon (Elgin) Marbles and the reluctance of the British Museum to repatriate sculptures to Greece, the acquisition of ancient artefacts by major Western museums is directly linked to relations of power and oppression. The objects displayed in Ancient Greeks are no exception and provide a clear example of the historical and ongoing force of British imperialism, profiting from stolen cultural heritage. By including the British Museum’s Ancient Greeks alongside First Australians, the NMA therefore portrays oppositional views.
Taking a broader perspective, Ancient Greeks serves as an example of the complicated decision-making process that is often required of modern institutions. While likely aware of the complexities surrounding the objects’ provenance and acquisition, other considerations must also be made. For instance, the contemporary museum operates in today’s tourism economy and must consider what is attractive to the public. As ‘blockbuster’ shows, Ancient Greeks and the three preceding exhibitions from the British Museum provide the NMA with an opportunity to increase visitation, generating attention and revenue. Displaying exceptional objects, never-before seen outside the British Museum, creates excitement for many people, from history-buffs and would-be Europe-travellers to parents and their kids. Perhaps this is a reflection less of the NMA’s choice to juxtapose these exhibitions and their opposing relationship to imperialism, and more of the Australian fascination with White cultural heritage, despite the rich local heritage of Indigenous Australia.
The decolonisation of museums is a long-term transformation which will face many dilemmas around imperialism and racism. The irony of displaying Ancient Greeks alongside First Australians and Talking Blak to History at the NMA is one such example of a contemporary institution wrestling with the reclamation of Indigenous history on one hand, and the pull of revenue-raising blockbuster exhibitions on the other.
Emily May is a recent graduate of the Master of Museum and Heritage Studies program at the University of Sydney. Focusing on how violent histories and minority memories are represented within the GLAM sector and within historiography, Emily seeks to highlight the importance of ordinary peoples and their stories. Her dissertation considered the representability of Holocaust history within the new museological construct, and her most recent work, published in the Sydney Jewish Museum’s 2021 Yearbook, looked at the link between individual survivor stories and a wider collective cultural memory.