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Diversity education in museums of Antiquity

To remain relevant in contemporary society, archaeological museums need to engage in the public debate about cultural diversity.

Written by Clara ten Berge and Branko van Oppen on

For museums with archaeological collections wishing to participate in the public debate about cultural diversity and thus validate their continued relevance in contemporary society, educational programs can offer excellent opportunities.

In this article, we take a closer look at the Allard Pierson Museum by way of a case study. The Allard Pierson Museum is the archaeological museum of the University of Amsterdam.

Cultural sensitivity

Our contemporary Western world is inhabited by an economically, socially, politically, ethnically, culturally and religiously diverse population – not to mention the large presence of temporary visitors, or tourists, from across the globe. This diversity is bound to increase in the coming decades.Show For a related matter, see: Rana Dasgupta, “The demise of the nation state,” The Guardian (5 Apr. 2018).

Learning to accept and even respect each other’s differences and to appreciate our similarities is a responsibility shared by society at large, but especially by parents. Adults probably experience different forms of discrimination and intolerance more so than children do. Still, teaching intercultural sensitivity, or means of promoting mutual understanding within such diversity at an early age, may be appropriately stimulated through educational programs at schools and museums.

Archaeological museums tend to be confronted with the challenge of engaging and exciting the general public about their collections, as many may find that ancient artefacts are not aesthetically pleasing or relevant for the present. People of foreign-born, non-European backgrounds may find it even more difficult to relate to, say, ancient Greece or Rome.

In the Netherlands for instance, residents with some type of foreign-born background now form the majority in the country’s three largest cities: Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague. Participating in the public debate about diversity thus provides museums of antiquity the welcome opportunity to valorize the social relevance of their collections.

Excavated nearly intact and with much of its ancient polychromy surviving (1863), Ludvig Fenger’s reconstruction of the statue of Augustus “Prima Porta” in Dorische Polychromie (1886) has deliberately left the skin marble white.

Whitewashing the Classics

Cultural heritage is understood to be the legacy left to society by preceding generations. We would actually argue that it belongs to us all – across the globe. Classical Antiquity, though, is all too often presented as the cradle of our modern Western (read: white) civilization.

Indeed, it is the educated, white elite of western European descent that claims to own this classical heritage, and who also happen to feel most comfortable in museums. Moreover, as recent research has shown, cultural and archaeological heritage has tended to be literally whitewashed.Show Margaret Talbot, “The myth of whiteness in Classical sculpture,” New Yorker (29 Oct. 2018). That is to say, traces of colour (polychromy) on ancient artefacts, particularly sculpture and architecture, have occasionally been deliberately removed, cleaned off from the white marble, apparently to make the objects more pleasant to look at – supposedly a rational correlation of beauty with purity.

Sarah Bond, an Assistant Professor in Classics at the University of Iowa, writes that “the equation of white marble with beauty is not an inherent truth of the universe; it’s a dangerous construct that continues to influence white supremacist ideas today.”Show Sarah E. Bond, “Why we need to start seeing the Classical world in color,” Hyperallergic (19 June 2017).

Yet, as the wall paintings at Pompeii or the Fayum mummy portraits illustrate particularly well, the ancient Mediterranean was an ethnically diverse and interconnected world. Even Egypt – famous for its distinctive millennia-long culture – despite its relative geographic isolation, interacted with, and experienced immigration from, the countries around the Nile Valley and well beyond, from Libya and Nubia, Arabia and India, the Levant and the Near East, to Asia Minor and the Aegean, the Balkan and Italian peninsulas and eventually the rest of the Mediterranean littoral.

Peaceful or otherwise, trade over land and sea, piracy and slavery, diplomacy and vassalage, violent incursions such as mass migration, war and conquest, colonial settlements, forced and voluntary intermarriage, the ancient Mediterranean, Black Sea and Near East formed a dynamic, interconnected, culturally diverse world. (See also our most recent podcast episode about interconnectivity in the ancient Mediterranean.)

Museums of antiquity or those with an archaeological collection, we believe, have the responsibility to join the public debate about diversity in our contemporary world, not only to illustrate that the “multicultural society” is not a recent phenomenon – rather that it has existed for thousands of years – but also to encourage a diverse public to feel welcome. Classical studies and archaeology tend to attract a largely white body of students; so that museum have a limited pool of candidates from different backgrounds from which to recruit employers.

This compounds the problems of representation caused by other things, such as the whitewashing of marble sculptures. As these are allegedly from the cradle of our “Western” civilization, they have become implicit – at times even explicit – objects of exclusion. Cultural institutions ought to realize that this exclusion – whether unintentional or not – is problematic, as non-white members of society are left with the impression that they do not share in this classical legacy. Ancient artefacts from Babylon or Memphis, Athens or Rome, Carthage or Palmyra, we feel, form part of the cultural heritage of all of humanity.

These two depictions of Scythian riders illustrate the difference between self-representation and the imaginative portrayal of “The Other.” Gold plaque in the shape of a warrior on horseback (Kerch, Crimea, ca. 4th cent. BC; The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, inv. no. КО.-49); terracotta figure of a horseman (Memphis (?), Egypt, ca. 5th-4th cent. BC; APM inv. no. 7198).

Museum education

A one-size-fits-all solution will not immediately present itself for the problems discussed above. Museums are in origin institutions in which national and international cultural heritage is exhibited. This heritage, belonging as we feel to everyone, edifies us about the world around us, whether our present world, or from centuries past.

Although perhaps not the big players in the field, museums of antiquity or with an archaeological collection are excellently equipped to shine a light on the mutual entanglement and influence of cultures, states and peoples that may at first sight appear distinct and separate. They may contribute to foster awareness about cultural and ethnic diversity past and present through educational programs, in addition to various other means.

Methods developed by museum educators, often adapted from educational programs for primary and high schools, underscore the importance of interactive tours, in which pupils are encouraged to participate in discussions and thus enthuse them about the material – rather than offer “mini-lectures” that allow room for questions only intermittently and require them to remain passive the rest of the time.

This may not be the appropriate forum to discuss such methods as Visual Thinking Strategies (VST) and Visible Thinking (VT) in any theoretical depth.Show For VST, see: Philip Yenawine, Visual Thinking Strategies: Using Art to Deepen Learning Across School Disciplines (2013); see also this website. For VT, see: Claire Bown, “Visible Thinking and Interpretation,” in Interpreting the Art Museum, ed. by Graeme Farnell (2015); or this website. They are proven to be effective for help a young audience better understand the kinds of objects they encounter in museums and keep their attention for an extended period of time. The guide will have the ability to personalize the tour; the pupils will feel less pressure to perform; and they will hardly realize that they are being educated. As a consequence, the group will remember the objects better and will have actually enjoyed the museum experience.

Three forms of cultural and religious adoption and adaptation on display in the Hellenistic gallery of the Allard Pierson Museum: statuette of the enthroned Cybele, a mother goddess from Asia Minor (marble, created in Attica, ca. 350-300 BC, found in Rome; APM 3986); temple relief of king Ptolemy II, of Macedonian descent, venerating the Egyptian deities Ptah and Sachmet (limestone, Dendera (?), Egypt, ca. 285-245 BC; APM inv. nos. 8795-8796); statue of standing Buddha in pleated dress inspired by Hellenistic ruler sculpture (phyllite, Gandhara (Pakistan), ca. 2nd-3rd cent. AD; Museum für Asiatische Kunst, Berlin, inv. no. I.215).

Recently (December 2018), a guided tour through the Allard Pierson Museum with a group of pupils from an ethnically diverse primary school in West Amsterdam offered an opportunity for a small-scale case-study for engaging a young public in antiquity and archaeology. Since 2014, to be sure, the Allard Pierson Museum has (re-)opened three newly designed galleries:

  • Greeks and Great Powers (the Classical Period, ca. 1000-335 BC);
  • From Alexander to Cleopatra (the Hellenistic World, ca. 335-30 BC), and;
  • From Rome to Roman (the Imperial Age, ca. 30 BC to AD 500).

The emphasis in these dynamic collection presentations is deliberate placed on cultural connectivity and exchange within the larger ancient world (ranging as far and wide as the Rhineland and the Nile Valley, the Black Sea coast and the Indus Valley), rather than, say, aesthetical or chronological aspects.

There are, in other words, sufficient moments during a tour to point to issues of cultural diversity and sensitivity. With a group of young pupils, however, the guide will have to select objects carefully and avoid talking more than the pupils. The pupils are allowed to talk about subjects that come to their minds and are encouraged that there are no “stupid” questions or “wrong” answers.

A strange-looking Egyptian terracotta figure of a bearded man with a pointed cap on display in the “Greeks and Great Powers” presentation lead to a discussion about representation, prejudice and “The Other”. For, compared to an image of a Scythian rider from the Crimea, this Egyptian depiction of a horseman from Scythia appears more imaginary than realistic. At the Hellenistic gallery a pupil broached the question whether young children were allowed at funerals then, or should be now. In the Roman wing, the portrait gallery as well as mummy portraits such as the Girl with the Golden Wreath, offered suitable starting points for conversations about ethnic diversity, intermarriage and bicultural upbringing.

The portrait gallery in the Roman wing of the Allard Pierson Museum illustrates a wide variety of ethnicities. Photo: Antony Jonges.

The tour was thus not only about the history or archaeological significance of the objects but allowed the pupils the freedom to engage in other subjects. A tour guide should therefore not only be knowledgeable about the objects on display, but also about their wider context; the guide should also be a good moderator and sensitive to cultural and ethnic topics.

In their evaluation afterwards, the pupils indicated that they had enjoyed the tour through the museum and found the way of looking at the objects very pleasant. From their answers it is clear that they preferred this visit over the standard tours in which they are required to listen passively. They also indicated that they liked it very much that there were no “wrong” answers. And they were happy to discover what they had seen together. In all, for them, it was a successful and valuable museum experience.

Closing remarks

Alhough this article presents a summary version of Clara ten Berge’s bachelor thesis, it is at the same time occasioned by two recent events reported in the news.

First, there was an incident during the annual meeting of the American Institute of America (AIA) and the Society for Classical Studies (SCS) this year (4-6 Jan. 2019, in San Diego, CA) at a panel on “The Future of Classics,” which included Sarah Bond, in which a member of the public assaulted Dan-el Padilla Peralta, an Assistant Professor at Princeton University, with racist remarks.Show Emma Pettit “After racist incidents mire a conference, classicists point to bigger problems”, Chronicle of Higher Education (7 Jan. 2019); see also this response. Secondly, a recent New York Times article quoted a U.S. politician who in one breath equated Western civilization with American nationalism and white supremacy.Show Trip Gabriel, “Before Trump, Steve King set the agenda for the Wall and anti-immigrant politics,” NY Times (10 Jan. 2019).

We feel that these events underscore the validity of our argument: that museums as cultural heritage institutions in general and repositories of classical archaeological collections in particular should demonstrate their relevance within our diverse modern society.

This article’s featured image shows how members of the Italian mercantile elite represented their appearance, with shades of skin tones reflecting both their ethnicity and gender (also note that the woman is placed in front of the man, and that she holds a stylus and wax tablet to demonstrate she is literate). Wall painting from the House of Terentius Neo (VII, 2, 6), Pompeii (ca. AD 55-79; National Archaeological Museum of Naples inv. no. 9058).

Further reading

Suggestions for further reading are listed below:

  • Sarah E. Bond, “Whitewashing ancient statues: whiteness, racism and color in the ancient world”, Forbes (April 27, 2017).
  • Colleen Flaherty, “Threats for what she didn’t say”, Inside Higher Ed (June 19, 2017).
  • Laurien de Gelder and Vladimir Stissi, “Grieken en grootmachten: antieke culturen van 1000 tot 335 voor Christus,” Allard Pierson Mededelingen 114/115 (2017), pp. 5-9.
  • Wim M. H. Hupperetz et al. (eds.), Keys to Rome (2014).
  • Elizabeth Marlowe, “The Met’s antiquated views of antiquities need updating”, Art Newspaper 308 (15 Jan. 2019).
  • Branko F. van Oppen de Ruiter, “De hellenistische wereld – van Alexander tot Cleopatra,” Allard Pierson Mededelingen 114/115 (2017), pp. 14-18.
  • David N. Perkins, The Intelligent Eye: Learning to Think by Looking at Art (1994).
  • Ron Ritchhart and David N. Perkins, “Making thinking visible,” Educational Leadership 65:5 (Feb. 2008), pp. 57-61.

Think we needed to include something else in this list? Let us know.