The Classics Museum at the Australian National University in Canberra holds a wealth of artefacts and antiquities from the Greek and Roman worlds. The collection spans a period between 1500 BC and 500 AD – a period in which significant changes occurred throughout the world, great cities were built and then sacked, empires were made, and works of literature and art were created that still inspire us today.
The museum was established in 1962 by Professor Richard Johnson to be a teaching resource. It’s not a type of museum I’ve written about yet, and it is one that raises challenges and opportunities that other museums don’t have. Teaching collections must be representative and steer away from becoming too specialised. Much, if not all, of the collection should be on display or accessible to students. Funding will be short, figures in charge will come and go, and much of the curation will fall to those outside the museum industry.
Objects from Athens and Rome sit alongside objects from the wider Greco-Roman world, and present Australian audiences with a sense of the aesthetic and lifestyle of those in the Ancient World. The grandeur and style of the Ancient World is on display in this elegant little museum, which provides a little window into life in a long-past world.
The aesthetic artefact museum
The display of the objects emphasises their beauty, and the cohesive aesthetic of the Classical World. Many of the objects are high-status and are of a high quality. It is an aesthetic artefact type of display, in which the object is elevated from the every day or ordinary to be the level of ‘art’ piece. The objects are isolated from their original contexts, but this also serves to remove any contaminating cultural references and allows students of Classics, art history, art, archaeology and history to examine each object for what it is.
The neutral colour palette of the display brings out the best in the blacks and oranges of the ceramics, the greenish hue of the glass and the shine of the coins. Ordinary objects are on display, such as plain pots from Sicily, ceramic lamps and vessels.
Interesting use of levels has been employed to draw the eye to objects that might have been ignored otherwise, like these hanging weights below. Even though this is a small space, it feels calm and ordered. Everything is given equal footing. In some museums, objects jostle for your attention, but not here.
A strength of the collection is a focus on domestic life. From fragments of wall paintings to oil lamps in which olive oil was burned to provide lighting, the visitor can start to put together a picture of life in this time period. In a way not unlike the display at the NationalMuseet in Copenhagen, lighting has been carefully considered during display design to heighten the sense that these are special objects we are seeing. Considering this is a museum for students (those just passing by and those beginning degrees in related fields), perhaps that is not a bad thing. It creates a sense of curiosity and wonder.
A teaching collection
This museum exists for the young people of the world to see objects from long-past societies. I was a student of Classics at the ANU, so I can speak to the enthusiasm held by students for the collection and for the discipline in general. As a teaching collection, it needs to be representative and it needs to be displayed for ease of viewing by students. New acquisitions will only add to the collection, but with an academic or university museum the main responsibility is to communicate the existing collection to the ever-changing audience of new students.
To the students
I hope the current students think up ways to truly use this collection and engage with its story. Material culture is incredibly important even if you’re really only studying the literature of a period. Just like the original Latin of a letter is your way of having Cicero speak directly to you, being able to look upon the painting on one of the spectacular vases (such as the Johnson vase) is allowing its painter to speak directly to you. Material culture can be read in the same way a text can, so view this museum as a library. Spend some time looking at a different object before each class, and spend as much time around these lovely objects as you can, because they will enrich your studies and your life. And then travel! Go and see the original contexts and see the fabulous museums of the world.
But while you’re at the ANU studying Classics, use this collection. Host a film night in the middle of it and watch the Life of Brian, have a Classical dinner party in it and recline on a biclinium made of cushions or buy some replica oil lamps and light them (not in the museum, though) and see how much light they give you. People gave them as gifts, and treasured them, or hated them or thought they were old-fashioned or avant-garde. In the same way that it is up to you to breathe life back into ancient texts, breathe life into this museum and its collection because these objects once lived with Greeks and Romans.
The museum may be found in the A.D. Hope building at the ANU, and it open on weekdays from 9am – 6pm. It’s a lovely little gem of a museum that most people don’t know about, and it is so worth going.