When archaeology is art – Defining Beauty at The British Museum

Just opened at The British Museum (BM) is Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art. This is the first major exhibition of sculpture there since 2008 when Hadrian: Empire & Conflict was shown. The exhibition has given the team behind it a chance to experiment with both the sculpture and how we see it in a museum setting.

Sometimes we need to think critically about exhibitions such as this. The advertising copy for the ‘show’ tells us that pieces are lit dramatically and raised to allow different views of sometimes familiar works. Why are they familiar? They are familiar not because we may have seen them before on a visit to the museum, but because they have influenced our idea of beauty, art, the body and meaning for centuries. Artists, travellers and writers for example have used art of the Ancient Greeks in many ways and for many reasons. The result is that ancient ideals have become intertwined with the contemporary.

Here are examples of the material culture of a long vanished culture which we might ordinarily call archaeology. Yet we prize them as ‘art’ and in the hushed tones of a museum and with artificial lighting we view them out of their intended context. There are originals, there are copies. There are sculptures from different times and locations. It is worth remembering this when walking around an exhibition such as this. Yes, there is craft, skill, imagination and more, but that this is not only on the part of the original sculptor but also on the part of the exhibition team. Aristotle and Socrates did not have the benefit of multi-coloured lighting or of seeing all these works juxtaposed with each other. It should be remembered when viewing the exhibition that theirs was a very different world, one which, at best, we can only glimpse through these sculptures.

The show in the new Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery (Room 30) until July 5th. For more information and tickets go to the BM website here: http://tinyurl.com/n9btkz8

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