Display in Focus: Ancient Myth and Transformation


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

transformation exhibit 2
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.

ure museum
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!

narcissus specimen
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.

transformation exhibit 3
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.

transformation exhibit colouring sheet
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!



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