As a disclaimer, the Metropolitan Museum of Art is my favorite place in all of New York City, with the Museum of Natural History running a close second. Despite my love for it, I’ve always had a bit of a problem with the exhibits. As an archaeology student, I am always wondering about the deeper questions behind the pieces that they display – why was the piece chosen for the museum, why did the artist choose to display the subject of the art, for what purpose was it made, and most importantly to me, what did it signify to people at the time of its creation? Unfortunately, the information provided by the museum often fails to answer these questions.
The exterior facade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
One section of the museum where these questions really should be answered is the Greek and Roman Art collection. Thousands of people per day enter this section full of pre-conceived, uninformed, or highly romanticized notions of the classical world; I find that the information offered by the display plaques often fails to help broaden visitors’ perceptions and knowledge of the past. For every description of how a piece was physically created, there is a lack of explanation on how it ties into the symbols and cultural understandings of its contemporary people. We are rarely told how the ancient Greek or Romans would have processed or interacted with these objects that are physical depictions and remnants of their daily lives.
The Leon Levy and Shelby White Court, part of the Greek and Roman exhibit.
Piece 52.11.4, terracotta kylix (drinking cup)
An example of an art piece where more description would greatly enhance the experience of the object would be number 52.11.4 in The Bothemer Gallery II, a Terracotta kylix described by the display plaque as: “shows a man propositioning a youth. The composition is admirable for the easy juxtaposition of the figures, the characterization of the man by the purse and of the youth by the athletic equipment on the wall, and the emphasis placed on the hands in the center”. While not technically incorrect, there are deeper implications to the image on this drinking cup than this esthetic description reveals. The drinking cup would have been used at Symposiums, spaces of revelry and companionship where pederastic relationships would have been glorified. While some people know that the Greeks were much less biased against homosexuality than we are today, what they do not realize is that there were very strict rules about pederastic courtships and how they could be initiated, how they are not just sexual but necessarily ingrained in the function of society. This is a very peculiar kylix because of the presence of both the athletic equipment and the coin purse – the equipment indicates that the youth was a citizen, of rank and status enough to practice in the gymnasium, and while gift giving was a necessary part of Greek courtship, the gift of money is very out of place in this scene. A young man is usually given a symbolic gift from the potential lover, such as a hunting trophy, that indicate the worth of the older man he is about to give himself to; coins are portable and less permanent than an exchange of land or something more meaningful. Money is the gift that is given to courtesans, prostitutes, and hetairai, rather than proper, respectable Athenian citizens.
In the Leon Levy and Shelby White Court, there is a large ornamental vase called a calyx-krater, used to mix wine and water at Symposiums and other banquets. The plaque says: “The peristyle courtyards and gardens of the villas belonging to wealthy Romans were filled with fountains, sculpture, and monumental ornaments such as this vase...three maenads, followers of Dionysos, dance in abandon to the music of wooden clappers. Gnarled trees above the handles evoke and outdoor setting”. Again, for someone with little knowledge of Greek and Roman life, this description is lacking. There is no
explanation given for why these particular figures would decorate such an object – attributing it to the depiction of a rustic scene is an incomplete description. In order to understand the presence of the women, the viewer must understand the conditions of a Symposium, the honors of the god Dionysos, and the symbolic meaning of a maenad. Symposiums were under the jurisdiction of Dionysos because of the vast quantities of wine consumed during them, as he was the deity of wine, drunken revelry, and chaos. More than that, the figures of the maenads might suggest something extra: they were symbols of unrestricted sexuality, wildness, and brutality. Their place of pride on the krater implies that the Symposiums these were used at were not civilized affairs of intellectual exchange as recorded by Plato or Xenophon's Symposium dialogues, but nights of frivolity and drunken mistakes. Another hint at the particularly tempestuous nature of this krater are the faces on the handles:
the wild unkempt hair, pudgy features, and a dark expression might signify that they are satyrs, the constant companions of the maenads. They were also representatives of Dionysus, with similar sexual and savage characteristics.
Calyx-krater, number 23.184
Calyx-krater, number 23.184 (Handle detail)
While there are many more examples of this throughout the Museum, this is not necessarily a critique, but a difference of opinion on what is important for the visitors to know. The museum approaches each piece from an “art history” perspective, making the viewing experience about the power of the onlooker’s interpretation in the present; I believe that visitor should be given more information about the cultural and social symbols from an archaeological perspective to fully appreciate it in the present. These description plaques do not point out important information about the Greeks and Romans in the past that would help modern viewers understand how these people would have perceived the objects they created.