Troy: Myth and Reality, The British Museum | Part 3: Thoughts on the book and the exhibition

Head of Achilles
Detail from Filippo Albacini: The Wounded Achilles. 1825. From the Devonshire Collections, Chatsworth

The book

Villing, A. et al. 2019. The BP Exhibition: Troy: Myth and Reality. London: Thames & Hudson/The British Museum.

The British Museum’s “Troy: Myth and Reality” exhibition is its major tourist attraction for Spring 2020. It covers the stories of the myth, the archaeology of Troy, and the reception of the story. The book that accompanies the exhibition is huge, heavy, beautifully illustrated and produced. It is not an exhibition catalogue, in the sense of being a systematic list of exhibits. Rather, it is a readable illustrated text book that tells the story of Troy from a number of viewpoints. Exhibits included in the exhibition are clearly indicated.

Following a general introduction, Chapter One, “Storytellers”, is about the Homeric question, the nature of the literary, theatrical and ceramic evidence, Virgil, and an introduction to reception. Emphasising the variety of sources, the book tells us that ‘[t]here was no one canonical version of the tale’ (p.18). Parry’s oral-formulaic theory is outlined, and the book concludes that ‘works were designed to be recited and listened to, not written down and read, and this remained part of their essential nature’ (p.28).

Chapter Two, “The Myth of the Trojan War”, tells the whole story rather well, beginning with Zeus’s plan to limit the earth’s population through war, and ending with the Nostoi. So it does not just retell Homer, but includes other literary and visual sources. Reflecting on Eunice Kim’s recent Open House, I was interested that Patroklos was presented as a fugitive murderer.

Chapter Three, “Archaeological Troy”, tells the story of the digging, Schliemann and subsequent archaeological research. Again, this is clearly and interestingly told, readable, and appropriately illustrated with contemporary artefacts and landscape photos. After a review of the complex archaeological evidence, the chapter concludes that ‘the precise relationship between the Iliad and Bronze Age Wilusa remains unclear’ (p. 181).

Chapter Four, “Enduring Stories”, is where I have some problems with the book (apart from trying to hold it). The chapter is not sure whether to adopt a chronological or thematic approach in its discussion of reception. It begins with the chronological structure, but then changes to a thematic structure, a solution to the problem that ends up being slightly muddled.

The second problem I have is the eroticism, and particularly the homoeroticism of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. The problem is not so much that the paintings and artefacts exist: they have their own story to tell, about historical approaches to sexuality. The problem is that in an analytical study this is not discussed. We are expected, it seems, to view such images as art without any comment about their subtext. Indeed, this subtext is not very ‘sub.’ Lucas Cranach the Elder’s painting of The Judgement of Paris, from the 1530s, is, frankly, hilarious. I might almost think it is intentionally so. Paris is presented, flushed and confused, in full body armour, like a jousting medieval knight in a modern re-enactment. The three goddesses are totally naked, bereft of their attributes and symbols of power, and it is impossible to distinguish them. They are just naked bodies. An anthropomorphic horse looks at the viewer and seems to be saying ‘Humans, eh? This won’t end well.’

Cranach Judgement of Paris
Lucas Cranach the Edler (1472–1553) and workshop: The Judgement of Paris. 1530–1535. Lent by Her Majesty The Queen.

A further disturbing image is an engraving by Pietro Testa from around 1650. It depicts the naked, muscled, dead, and perfect, body of Hector being hauled around the walls of Troy, by a similarly naked Achilles. I would have expected a book as big and thorough as this to acknowledge the ambiguity of such an image: is it about heroism? Or masculinity? War? Or sexuality?

Achilles dragging Hector's body
Pietro Testa (1612–1650). Achilles Dragging the Body of Hector. about 1648–1650). From the British Museum.

The book is expensive, but I would suggest well worth searching out on internet book sites. Not only was it a good narrative read, but it is well indexed with many citations, and will be a useful reference tool in the future.

The exhibition

The exhibition is not without controversy. Campaigners have opposed its sponsorship by a petroleum company. Presumably the company gets tax breaks, while the Museum gets the necessary funding. Is that win-win or messy compromise? I spent the morning wandering around the Museum’s Assyrian, Egyptian, Mycenaean and early Greek galleries. And the fabulous Parthenon Marbles. I reflected that all this stuff should be sent home, but if it had been I would not be able to enjoy it that day, and neither would the countless foreign visitors. Principles in tatters, I set off for Troy.

It is perhaps unfair to compare the book and the exhibition. Both would stand alone. Either can be appreciated without the other. However, having seen both, I do compare.

The exhibition begins with some introductory modern material, and the first main section is of classical illustrations of the Troy stories. They are presented in the order in which the story may be told chronologically, so if you simply wanted to know the causes and sequences of the Trojan War, you could find that here. What really struck me about this part was the beauty of the vases. There are a lot of stunningly painted vases! This part of the exhibition concludes with a particularly effective approach to display, where items are housed in glass cases in a sculpted rib structure, no doubt to depict the Horse.

I think my favourite piece was Eris, the goddess of Strife, depicted at the bottom of a small cup which had been borrowed from a Berlin Museum. (The exhibition includes a number of items that were borrowed from other places for the purpose of being in the exhibition, as well as items from the British Museum’s own collections). Eris is depicted running, with outrageous pointed shoes. The book does not tell us what was drunk from the cup, but I imagined drinking red wine, and Eris’s wicked grin emerging as I drank. I do not think I would have had another.

Eris, goddess of discord. Athenian drinking cup (kylix), 550–540 BCE. From Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Antikensammlung.

The next part of the exhibition shows some contemporary artefacts, recovered from archaeological digs. My favourite here was a modernistic ‘owl-like face pot,’ which again had a wicked look.

Owl faced pot
Owl-faced pot, about 2250–1750 BCE. © Foto: Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz. Fotograf/in: Claudia Plamp. Sch 1070
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Germany License.

The second half of the exhibition consists of depictions of the story from medieval times to the present, including Albacini’s Wounded Achilles, which is the icon used to advertise the exhibition. My arguments about eroticism in the book apply here, too, although perhaps I might not expect to see critical comment in an exhibition as I would in a book.

Wounded Achilles
Filippo Albacini (1777–1858). The Wounded Achilles. 1825. From The Devonshire Collections, Chatsworth.

A further critical pint arises for me, concerning the comparison of the book and the exhibition. The book gives little concept of size. The sizes of the exhibits are dutifully printed in each caption, but I did not get the full effect of size until I saw the exhibits themselves. Eris, in the cup, for example, is tiny, emphasising again the skill of the painter. In contrast, Collier’s oil painting of a fearsome Clytemnestra is formidable, two and a half meters tall. In the book, they are the same size. I realise this is inescapable, but I only really experienced an awareness of size while viewing the exhibition.

John Collier (1850–1034). Clytemnestra. 1882. From Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London.

Women are not neglected, either in the book nor the exhibition. We can thank late-twentieth-century feminists for the fact that an exhibition would not now be seen as complete without the representation of women in the story. I would not say there was an explicitly feminist element that is critical of patriarchal scholarship, although such an approach is evident in some of the modern artefacts. Eleanor Antin’s Judgment of Paris, depicting the goddesses as modern stereotypes, while an isolated and confused Helen sits apart from the action, is both funny and thought-provoking. Villing et al’s book (2019 p.260) describes the picture:

Athena is a khaki-clad and black-booted gunslinger, Aphrodite, in long gloves and evening dress, looks as though she has just left a party, while Hera, in the garb of a 1950s housewife, wields a vacuum cleaner. A disconsolate Helen sits to one side of the judgement scene, ignoring the foppish and faintly ridiculous figures of Hermes and Paris, but still engaging our sympathy because she clearly has no part to play or power to take the slightest responsibility for her own future.

The picture itself may be seen on the British Museum Highlights webpage:

The exhibition, like the book concludes with the glowing silver-gilt rendering of the Shield of Achilles by Rundell, 1822.

Gilded silver Shield of Achilles
Rundell, Bridge and Rundell, from a design by John Flaxman (1755–1826). The Shield of Achilles. 1822. From National Trust, Anglesey Abbey (The Fairhaven Collection)

It is truly spectacular, and was used to inspire a piece of art commissioned for the exhibition from Spencer Finch. Entitled Shield of Achilles (Dawn, Troy, 10/27/02) 2019, it is a massive circle of bright lights that gives the exhibition and the book a sparkling finish.

The artist’s website shows a version of this installation:

Image credits

Owl-like ‘face pot‘. 2550–1750 BCE, Hisarlik, Turkey.
© Foto: Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz
Fotograf/in: Claudia Plamp. Sch 1070
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Germany License.

All other photos: Kosmos Society. Image captions based on attributions at the exhibition.


Anne Spendiff is a member of Kosmos Society.