By: Megan Mahon
In almost every so-called universal museum in the world, the department of classical art takes pride of place. The most well-known museums – like the British Museum, the Louvre, and the Met – are famous for their vast collections of Greek and Roman art, the pinnacle of the classical period. But what does the term “classical” really mean, especially when museums use it to describe a certain form of art? How is this term implicated in creating a hierarchy of artistic achievement?
Figures from the East Pediment of the Parthenon at the British Museum. Image courtesy of author.
The beginning of the answer to that question will be very familiar to Museum Studies students. In a process parallel to the inception of modern museums, the term “classical” was first applied to art during the Enlightenment, when white European scholars were beginning to run into myriad forms of artistic expression in the places they colonized. As a way to enforce the notion of white cultural superiority, these European scholars established their own standard for what the pinnacle of creative achievement should be. Ancient Greek and Roman art – statuary, paintings, mosaics – was positioned as the highest artistic standard, with every other work of art judged in comparison. Johann Joachim Winckelmann, an 18th century antiquarian often named “the father of art history,” even declared that Greek sculpture was “the summit of human achievement, past or present.” Winckelmann had obviously never gazed upon the temples of Angkor Wat, or even eaten a taco. But, more seriously, it’s worth noting that this is the same man who, when speaking of once-painted Greco-Roman statues which faded to white over time, also said “the whiter the body is, the more beautiful it is." Racism has been a part of the classical discipline since its inception.
So, how is this a problem for museums today? Well, in many institutions – the British Museum being a notable example – the “classical world” is set apart from the art and artifacts of other regions and times. Even the title “classic” suggests that this art is separate, other, original, something to aspire to rather than be judged in its own right. It’s also true that few other works of art, even those from the same time period, are deemed classical: only works from Greece and Rome are granted this title. Many museums also place Mediterranean art in the best, most expensive galleries, while many other works of art, particularly those that have a purpose beyond aesthetic value or those which do not come from Europe, are judged as “artifacts” or “ethnographic items” and relegated to less desirable locations. Feel free to argue with me if you’d like, but the truth is that museums have a lot of work to do in unpacking the connections they’ve reinforced between classical art and white European superiority.
Because the fact is that classics and white supremacy are inextricably linked. Mary Beard, a well-known archaeologist and popular non-fiction author, has commented in the past that the classical world is a “vocabulary that can be used for good or ill by would-be emancipators and oppressors alike.” Sure, but isn’t it also true that the classical tradition has been used and re-used by those in power even up to modern day? Dictators and white supremacists across time have used the classical world as an inspiration or a rallying cry for their so-called higher purpose. The discipline itself was started by people with an agenda; museums aren’t neutral, and art isn’t either.
The art world, in many ways, defines itself by what we call the classical tradition, but how can museums move beyond this? How can we remove all defining markers, and display art with no standard, no status quo, and no measure of superiority?
The very first thing to do is to do away with the word “classical” entirely, as it implies a standard by which all other art is judged. Using the terms “ancient Roman” or “ancient Mediterranean” instead will change nothing about the art except for the way that we look at it, and it’s a relatively easy thing to do. The second – and far more difficult – task is to incorporate the voices of Indigenous people into museums, particularly in Canada. When Indigenous art is interpreted by Indigenous people (such as at the Haida Gwaii Museum at Kay Llnagaay), it can be understood outside of the settler-colonial context, and outside settler-colonial, Enlightenment-based hierarchies. Allowing Indigenous people to tell their stories, in their own voices, will create more opportunities for reconciliation in Canadian museums.
The final, and most difficult thing that museums everywhere can do is acknowledge where the importance is placed in their collections. The viewing of ancient Mediterranean art is often seen as an escape from the modern world, a journey back to a time of pure, neutral beauty, removed from everyday politics. This neutral, universalist notion, as we all know, is a shield for white supremacy to hide behind. An obvious way to combat this is to include more Indigenous voices and stories in cultural institutions, so that all art can be understood in its own context. When museums can learn to place all art on the same pedestal, we’ll have true artistic and epistemic equality. Until then? Someone get Johann Winckelmann a taco.
Further Reading Rachel Poser (2021). “He Wants to Save Classics from Whiteness. Can the Field Survive?” The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/02/magazine/classics-greece-rome-whiteness.html Denise Eileen McCoskey (2018). “Beware of Greeks Bearing Gifts: How Neo-Nazis and Ancient Greeks Met in Charlottesville.” Origins 11, no. 11. https://origins.osu.edu/article/beware-greeks-bearing-gifts-how-neo-nazis-and-ancient-greeks-met-charlottesville. Krishnan Ram-Prasad (2019). “Reclaiming the Ancient World.” Eidolon. https://eidolon.pub/reclaiming-the-ancient-world-c481fc19c0e3.