Display in Focus: Ancient Myth and Transformation

Hello!

It’s Polly again. Now I’ll tell you a bit about how I created the Ancient Myth & Transformation display.

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Behind the scenes! – cleaning the display case before objects are installed

 

This display is situated in the Ure Museum of Greek Archaeology. Because of this, I wanted to discuss a subject that related to the museum and its collections.

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Entrance to the museum

I started looking at various aspects of gender and sexuality in the ancient world, and found myths to be an interesting expression of this in Greek culture. I eventually came across the myth of Narcissus, and after reading various adaptions of the story, I felt that exploring this myth would be a great way of seeing how a past culture viewed LGBTQ+ relationships and ideas about the body.

I wrote my own summary of the myth (which is included in the display):

“Ovid’s Metamorphoses tells us of a vain young man who was desired by men and women for his extraordinary beauty. He scorned this affection and was cursed by the gods for his arrogance and vanity. Upon seeing his reflection for the first time he fell in love with it, not realising it was himself. The divine curse led him to be so charmed that he could not move or look away. He lamented and gazed at his reflection forevermore, eventually transforming into a beautiful flower”.

The theme in the story that interested me the most was the aspect of self-discovery and transformation. The story has traditionally been read as a cautionary tale against pride and egotism, however some may see his transformation into a flower as a peaceful end to a long period of suffering.

The story also contains an aspect of LGBTQ+ history, as it shows us that the ancient Greeks were comfortable with the concept of sexuality being driven by attraction and desire, and not necessarily by gender. LGBTQ+ themes were present in the story, but were not a key part of the tale, showing that LGBTQ+ identities may not have been as political or socially significant as they were in some past cultures. I also felt this was an important concept to highlight as it relates to current topical discussion, with LGBTQ+ identities and relationships still being challenged and contested in some communities and areas of the world today…

 

To add colour to the display, I chose a specimen from the herbarium and used this to focus on the myth surrounding the narcissus plant itself. I wanted to include this to explore a slightly different element of the theme of Narcissus, as well as take the chance to use the intriguing herbarium collections that the university holds. An additional idea was to put a live narcissus plant next to the display, as it would add a sensory element to the exhibit and be a physical example of transformation in action: as the flower grows and wilts it goes through various transformations, with each new form being a product of its environment and its physical nature, and each change being unique and special to that individual plant. However, this idea was short lived due to complications with collections care and pest control!

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Narcissus specimen from the herbarium collections

 

Working with the wonderful curators at the Ure Museum, I identified items in their collection which would work well with the theme of transformation. I decided to choose ancient Greek artefacts which depicted figures using mirrors, and accompanied these with an ancient Egyptian mirror. This focus on mirrors aims to encourage people to think about physical image and the body, and how this can be transformed. I also included a modern mirror in the display, and ask visitors to look into it and think about the theme of transformation in relation to themselves – such as choosing outfits, ageing, or achieving lifetime goals.

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Artefacts in situ before they were installed into the ‘About & Out: Transformation’ display

 

To add an interactive element to the display, I created an activity sheet which asks people to be creative and transform a blank image into an individual. When you visit the display, take the time to have a go yourself – and let us know how you got on by contacting us via email, or add a pic to social media using the hashtag #aboutandout.

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Transform me! activity sheet

Feel free to contact me at museumgeeks@gmail.com if you have any questions or comments about this exhibit. I’d love to hear from you!

See you soon,

Polly (Museum Geek)

 

P.S – If you’d like to learn more about the Ure Museum of Greek Archaeology, take a look at their website (https://www.reading.ac.uk/Ure/index.php) or plan a visit. It’s well worth a trip!

 

Display In Focus: Love & Desire – Part 2

Jonathan again, here to conclude on the construction of the Love & Desire display.

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Labels had been missing when the objects for the display were first installed, so getting them in was the top priority afterward. Label writing is also one of the strangest, trickiest aspects of any museum project; all your ideas as a curator and educator have to be condensed down into a few lines that should easily readable to your audience. For example: Right now I’m writing with a presumption that readers will be at least moderately literate with at least some enthusiasm for either museum curation or LGBTQ+ subjects. My sentences are long and complex, at times with multiple subjects linked through uncertain uses of conjunction and punctuation. These were some of the chief complaints I received about my draft labels, so I had to rush to fix them.

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How the objects had been previously arranged affected how the labels themselves were written up, which in then affected how I arranged the objects. Strange loop, no? One may recall from the previous blog post that originally, the label holders had been placed together, and Satan Took a Bride was placed near the top. The display case was packed, but when the labels were slipped in, it became apparent that it made for a bit of an unclear reading. Plus, given the sentiment by others that perhaps I had one book too many, and the choice was made to remove Heart, Have You No Wisdom? and put the Mills & Boon label in its place. Thus I had a square around a square, the label surrounded by its subject. This also freed up enough space for the Violet Winspear label to be placed in the centre but still be placed clearly closer to its own subject matter and material.

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Unfortunately at the time, there simply weren’t enough large label holders for my purposes – worse still my smaller labels were too large for small label holders. This was not impossible to revise through careful editing of sentences, and removing unnecessary spacing, though I could have also considered the ages old trick of editing font size. I mean, I didn’t, but it was still a possible solution, and the others that I did use managed to free up enough of the large holders.

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One of the peculiar concerns that nagged me throughout the arrangement of the display was how I would intend people to move through it, and how they would be introduced. Strictly speaking there are two methods of entry into the Staircase Hall that are technically accessible to the public, but the one that would have been most preferable to my aims – emerging by the painting of Pandora at the start – was also the least likely to be used as it’s not the main entrance and intended for staff access. However, the route from the entrance lets one meet the latter half of the material in terms of chronology first, thus I was going to have to accept a probable on compromise the flow of the ‘narrative’ as such – going from the late 19th century to the late 20th century – owing to the space syntax of the room. At the very least though, I could position our exhibition sign on an easel to be the first thing one saw if they looked into the room (the entrance being in a right-hand corner), which is what I did.

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It was slowly but surely all coming together, with only one particular complication left. The thing for which I was most enthused, both for how silly it is but also how peculiar the questions it raises are. In the upper left, one can see the Museum’s painting of ‘Pandora’, depicting the mythological woman from greek myth in the moments prior to her creation. Since I was going for a look into things such as sexuality and identity are depicted, it seemed like a wasted opportunity if I did not somehow make use of the naked woman hung on the wall. There are however a lot of concerns that go into any kind of tampering with such a piece, namely about potential harm. The painting itself is behind glass, but tape could potentially leave a smear or we might scratch it in installation, neither of which is a good thing to do in general, nevermind when you’re a student. Fortunately, a solution was devised whereby our little addition would be over the painting, but not strictly on it, thus sparing it from any harm.

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So it was that Pandora came to be censored, but only above the waist – that’s where the artist actually put in the details after all. Never mind that her crotch is still exposed, and there’s some men hard at work in the back in seemingly nothing at all. If the standard by which Pandora has been covered up should seem strange, good: That’s the point.

 

That is Love & Desire, and I hope its creation has proven interesting to read about. Thanks for your time,

Jonathan