7 October event

Classical Collections Network 
Opening up the conversation: diversity and classical collections 

Friday 7th October 2022 


A word doc. of the programme can also be downloaded

10.00 – 10.15 Welcome and introduction (Vicky Donnellan) 

10.15 – 11.00 Keynote: Katherine Harloe and Amara Thornton, The ‘Beyond Notability’ Project  

11.00 – 11.10 Break 

11.10 – 12.25 Session 1: Contemporary perspectives.  

Chair: Abigail Baker  

11.10 – 11.25 Isabelle Lawrence, Critiquing a ‘comic’ actor at the British Museum through a ‘contemporary lens’

11.25 – 11.40 Sophie McGurk, Discipline(d) and Punish(ed): The Museum as a ‘Prison’ of Culture 

11.40 – 11.55 Emma Aston and Andrew Mangham, Classics, contemporary art, and diversity of bodies and identities  

11.55 – 12.25 Discussion 

12.25 – 13.10 Lunch 

13.10 – 14.00 Session 2: Working people.  

Chair: Anna Reeve  

13.10 – 13.25 Roswyn Wiltshire, Collecting for the working class: Joseph Mayer  

13.25 – 13.45 Thomas Kiely, Meet the Locals. The case of Gregorios Antoniou in 19th-century Cyprus [recorded presentation] 

13.45 – 14.00 Discussion 

14.00 – 14.10 Break 

14.10 – 15.00 Session 3: Widening participation.  

Chair: James Lloyd 

14.10 – 14.40 Arlene Holmes-Henderson, Improving access to classical studies via academic-museum partnerships 

14.40 – 15.00 Q&A and discussion 


Isabelle Lawrence, Critiquing a ‘comic’ actor at the British Museum through a ‘contemporary lens’

Improving disability representation in museums has increasingly been framed as a priority. Interestingly, this has often involved appropriating concepts and tools developed in disability activist movements as ‘lenses’ through which to re-examine the significance of museum objects and the disability histories that they embody. Re-envisaging museums as spaces that can contribute to social change, museums are effectively encouraged to reframe their collections using the ‘contemporary lens’ of disability activism, anchored as much by the concerns of the present as by the past (Knell, 2019). 

What implications should this have as we unearth histories of disability ‘buried’ in archaeological collections (Delin, 2002)? Contemplating this question, this paper will focus on a single object in the British Museum collection: a terracotta figurine thought to represent a comic actor with dwarfism, dated to approximately 100 BCE and found in Myrina (modern day Izmir, Turkey). In 2021, this ‘comic’ actor was critiqued as part of a collaborative collections research project entitled Hidden, Revealed, during which the historical and contemporary significance of British Museum objects were renegotiated by a consultation group. Drawing on the advice of this group, this paper will contemplate the opportunities that examining this ‘comic’ actor using a ‘contemporary lens’ might generate.  

Sophie McGurk, Discipline(d) and Punish(ed): The Museum as a ‘Prison’ of Culture 

My paper examines museum possession of objects against a framework of Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, specifically his application of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon model. It applies the theory developed through Foucault’s exploration of state institutions in his 1975 work to the dynamic that currently exists between the Museum, exhibits and visitors. Through Foucault’s establishment of the symbiotic relationship that exists between Knowledge and Power, this paper focuses on how knowledge (what is disclosed about the object; what is withheld), access (who gets to see it; where and when), and the visual (what is seen; what is not; and how it is seen/ exhibited) is controlled in a museum context. These issues are interrogated through the use of a series of specific case studies from the British Museum: the Benin Bronzes, the caryatid from the Erechtheion, and the Hoa Hakananai’a statue from Rapa Nui. These are all highly contested objects, embroiled in ongoing ownership and restitution debates. Similarly, they are all very culturally significant items, both to their places of origin (Nigeria, Greece and Easter Island, respectively) and to the British Museum’s status as a ‘World Museum’. Thus, this study examines the Museum as an institution that acts as a ‘prison’ of culture through an application of Foucauldian theory; looks at this in context in the form of the British Museum’s possession of the Benin Bronzes, the caryatid, and Hoa Hakananai’a; and works towards solutions that will enable the ‘freeing’ of foreign cultures. 

Emma Aston and Andrew Mangham, Classics, contemporary art, and diversity of bodies and identities  

This presentation will discuss the goals of a project organised by staff in the Departments of Classics and English Literature and the Centre for Health Humanities at the University of Reading.  The starting-point is an exhibition of contemporary art in Reading Museum, September 2023 to January 2024, featuring painter Paul Reid and sculptor Eleanor Crook.  Both artists use subjects from Classical mythology; both also produce hyper-realistic representations of imaginary beings to challenge the norms of ‘natural’ anatomy and the boundary between human and non-human.   

The organisers want the exhibition to enhance the reach of Classical mythology and to widen awareness of the enduring power of ancient storytelling among non-traditional audiences.  They also believe that the motif of the monster in myth has a special power to speak to contemporary themes concerning the relationship between bodies and identities, relevant to (for example) queer and transgender issues.  Monsters are inherently boundary-crossing and challenge assumptions concerning the ‘normal’ and the ‘abnormal’; they are also cross-cultural in resonance.  The regular appearance of Classical monsters in contemporary popular culture and the visual arts, reflects the special persistence of ancient stories; it is this that the project aims to harness. 

The presentation will address the following points: whom does the exhibition particularly hope to reach, and how? What specific strategies will be trialled for engaging young people? What is the intended impact and pathways for further development after the exhibition?  Because the project is still at the planning phase, it would be especially valuable for the organisers to get feedback and inspiration from other participants in the ‘Opening Up the Conversation’ event. 

Roswyn Wiltshire, Collecting for the working class: Joseph Mayer  

Joseph Mayer, a gold and silversmith of Liverpool, formed a vast collection of classical antiquities displayed in his ‘Egyptian Museum’ before its denotation to the city of Liverpool, where it still forms a significant part of the public museum. It is generally assumed that a vast collection corresponds to vast fortune, and ‘wealthy’ is often the first epithet applied to Mayer. Focus on his financial capacity rather than the aims of his collecting has distanced Mayer from his own tradesman identity and with it his devotion to his fellow working class. This paper seeks to readdress Mayer’s motives, restoring him to his context in working class Victorian Staffordshire and Liverpool. With new evidence extrapolated from the vast archive of his letters and other ephemera, this study frames Mayer as a man with strong trade and working-class identity passionate about classical artefacts and drawn to collect them not for self-aggrandisement or social advancement, but to grant opportunities to his class and share a love of learning. Through Mayer’s collection and its success as a museum for the public, we gain glimpse on the too often over-looked engagement with classical antiquities outside the social elite. 

Thomas Kiely, Meet the Locals. The case of Gregorios Antoniou in 19th-century Cyprus  

Accounts of the archaeology of Cyprus in the 19th century are dominated by a series of (mainly male) visitors and expatriates who excavated and collected antiquities on a large scale, exporting them to the museums and auction houses of the world. Far less attention is paid to the large numbers of local workers, supervisors and inspectors who did the bulk of the physical and ‘managerial’ work. Following recent research on the archaeological agency of local communities, the ‘hidden hands’ of Cypriot archaeology are explored through a discussion of the career of the Cypriot born Gregorios Antoniou (c. 1860- c1950). Beginning as a casual excavator and vendor of antiquities, he later served as foreman at major British-organised digs on the island in the 1880s and 1890s (the commercial excavations at Marion in 1886, the Cyprus Exploration Fund (1887-1890) and the British Museum (1893-1899); there followed a series of important British excavations in Crete and Greece (including Knossos) early in the 20th century. Apart from his under-appreciated role in the expansion of museum collections and advancing archaeological research, Antoniou provides a fascinating example of the often ambiguous lines between casual and scientific digging and, given his mobility, even between ‘local’ and ‘foreign’. 

Arlene Holmes-Henderson, Improving access to classical studies via academic-museum partnerships 

In this talk, Dr Holmes-Henderson will showcase three successful partnerships between academic classicists, museum curators and educators. In an effort to widen access to classical studies in schools and communities, Arlene has led AHRC-funded projects with the British Museum, the Museum of Classical Archaeology in Cambridge and the World Museum in Liverpool. From museum-based study days to interactive digital sourcebooks and videos filmed in storerooms, these collaborations have changed practice in museums, schools and academic departments.