Worshiping Women: Ritual and Reality in Classical Athens
launched in December 2008 at the Onassis Cultural Center is an exhibition composed primarily of loans from foreign institutions and museums and will be open until May 9, 2009. The introductory plaque at the beginning of the exhibition informs us that “religious rituals defined women.” The visitor is led through galleries focusing on priesthood, the cycle of life, festivals, heroines, and goddesses. Each section looks at the imagery on vases, marble stelai, or statues in order to reveal insights into the world of Classical Athenian women. Particularly intriguing is the realization of how much money it would have cost to ship these priceless artifacts from their museums to mid-town Manhattan. Loans from the British Museum, the Louvre, Italy, Berlin, and Boston among other locations fill the cases in addition to loans from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Organization is credited to the Onassis Public Benefit Foundation in collaboration with the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, curated by Dr. Nikolaos Kaltsas and Dr. Alan Shapiro.
The exhibition is remarkable because of the opportunity to see these notable pieces of history. The display, however, remains entrenched in the traditional art gallery format. Labels describe what you see while larger wall texts reveal the coherent themes for each section. Unfortunately, the exhibition does not do justice to the importance of archaeological contexts. Few sites are specifically discussed, except for the most famous: the Akropolis in Athens and the sanctuary of Demeter at Eleusis. This allows for only a few cases in which related objects are brought together in assemblages. A few dense groupings of mixed media represent artifacts found in known contexts. For most objects, however, contexts remain unknown.
The great benefit of preserved archaeological context is illustrated by the case of the grave stele (cat. no. 87) found at Rhamnous in 1892, just below the temple terrace. This funerary monument is now in the collection of the National Archaeological Museum in Athens (Γ 2309). On its label, it is observed that “the find-spot of the grave relief strongly suggests that the representation is that of the priestess of Nemesis.” What insight is made possible from preserved archaeological context! Imagine if each piece and pot in the exhibition preserved this level of information instead of bearing labels that read: “provenance unknown” or “said to be from. . .” Despite a broad attempt to inform us about provenience, the exhibition does not emphasize or explain the importance of what archaeological context can tell us about the use and meaning of objects in the ancient past.
As a graduate student in Museum Studies, I wish that the exhibition would have informed us about the state of fragmentation of the conserved artifacts and pottery displayed. Multiple breaks and missing fragments attest to the destruction of objects caused by clandestine excavations and their subsequent illegal export. I imagine that visitors, too, might wonder about the state of preservation of these objects on display. To be sure, some labels do reference that objects were acquired through confiscation within Greece. Several pieces from the National Archaeological Museum in Athens bear labels that read: “acquired by confiscation” or “confiscated from Zoumboulakis in 1938” (NAM 16346 and NAM 17297 respectively). This adds a whole new and important dimension to the display. It shows that Greece has been pro-active in protecting its cultural heritage. It does seem like a lost opportunity, however, not to have provided further information about the circumstances of the recovery of these objects. The general public would have benefited from learning about ongoing efforts to combat the illicit antiquities market.
Somewhat disturbing is one design choice in the exhibition in which two objects are treated as interior decorative elements rather than as material culture from a past and complex society. Two Hellenistic funerary columns, the sacred and lasting memorials through which the lives of priestesses—Habryllis and Mneso— were commemorated, have been built into faux-architectural columns within the exhibition space. (Cat. Nos. 82 and 83, NAM Γ 1727 and EM 11144) This looks more like a decorator’s trick from an Upper East Side townhouse than an appropriate display for what are, after all, funerary memorials commemorating actual lives lived.
The success of the exhibition manifests the importance of giving audiences access to extraordinary objects from the past. Comments such as, “It looks contemporary, it’s fascinating!” could be heard reverberating throughout the gallery on the days I visited. Broad public interest in ancient Greek women and religion was peaked just a few years ago with the publication of Joan Breton Connelly’s book, Portrait of a Priestess: Women and Ritual in Ancient Greece, winner of the Archaeological Institute of America’s James Wiseman Book Prize and added to the New York Times Book Review list of “Notable Books of 2007.” Connelly was approached by the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago and spent a term there as a Visiting Fellow in Anthropology to undertake a feasibility study for turning her book into a traveling exhibition. In preparation for her show on Greek Priestesses, which had been anticipated for 2011-12, Connelly taught a course at New York University in the spring semester of 2008. I was lucky enough to be a student in the seminar: “The Lost History of Greek Priestesses: Curating an Exhibition.” Nineteen graduate and undergraduate students were encouraged to implement innovative ideas to create contextual galleries tracking the female experience of Greek ritual from childhood, through maidenhood, to maturity and death. Special galleries focused on women in the theater and on the Delphic Oracle, all placing women and priestesses in their full social and cultural contexts. Students labored with the hope that their work would find culmination in a future exhibition at the Field Museum of Natural History, one that would travel to venues on the East and West coasts and on to Greece. A museum of Natural History would have provided an ideal setting for a show that emphasized the human narrative of Greek ritual as well as the archaeological and anthropological contexts that inform us about it. Unfortunately for the students in our class, “Worshiping Women” has preempted the “Greek Priestesses” exhibition, duplicating much of the checklist of objects gathered in Portrait of a Priestess. While this has put our class show in jeopardy, one can only hope that one day the pieces will be allowed to travel again for the kind of exhibition designed in our seminar.
As a student from the class, I have an intimate knowledge of the works, their meaning, and how they have strengthened our understanding of the lives of women. Looking at the exhibition “Worshiping Women,” and its traditional art historical display, I cannot help but wonder what the impact of these pieces might have been had they been shown through an anthropological lens, focusing on the human narrative of their ancient contexts and meanings. Artifacts with known context, like the Rhamnous stele, provide insight, but the provenience of most other pieces is lost to us, in many cases forcing an object to remain just another pretty pot.