Published: May 6, 2003
By Karla Klein Albertson
PHILADELPHIA, PENN. — Relics of ancient civilizations seem eternal and immutable, but museum curators realize that the fashion in which they are displayed must be updated periodically to appeal to succeeding generations.
The Romanesque brick structure is sheltered on the campus of a distinguished educational institution that dates back to pre-Revolutionary times. Benjamin Franklin, eternal in bronze, greets Penn students on the way to class, and the weight of tradition is everywhere apparent. In the museum, however, the displays of ancient art are now quite up-to-date, thanks to a multimillion dollar renovation of the Greek, Etruscan and Roman galleries that debuted in March under the title “Worlds Intertwined.”
The Rodney S. Young Gallery devoted to the Ancient Greek World has actually been open in its new incarnation since 1994, but the Etruscan and Roman galleries that frame it and “intertwine” with it were only completed this spring under the guidance of classical archaeologist Irene Bald Romano, who is the project’s co-curator and coordinator. The Etruscan Gallery is named after the late Bryn Mawr College Professor Kyle M. Phillips, Jr, who excavated in Tuscany at Murlo near Siena and the Roman Gallery — funded with the support of the local Italian American community — after distinguished son of Italy and Philadelphia citizen Andrew N. Farnese.
With only one glance, a student of museology can date a gallery’s installation to the decade in which it was executed, as certainly as an English ceramics dealer can date his old Worcester. Baby boomers will remember the ancient galleries of their childhood in The Metropolitan Museum of Art or Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where an endless succession of polished wooden vitrines — highly collectible in themselves these days — displayed thousands of tersely-labeled Egyptian scarabs or Greek vases. While this was truly awesome in the more-is-better fashion of the times, such an array would be quite out of style today.
Prior to the recent project, the Roman world at Penn had been untouched since the 1950s and not since the 1920s had the Etruscan artifacts been displayed with anything like the completeness now on view. This last point is crucial, stresses Irene Romano: “We have the best collection of Etruscan material in the United States. These tomb groups from various Etruscan sites were among the founding collections of the museum. The very comprehensive collection, which includes material from Narce and Vulci, was formed at the end of the Nineteenth Century. Characteristic of this museum, we didn’t buy just that one special vase; we bought everything from that tomb group so we could reconstruct the whole history of the culture.”
Unlike the bad old days of cryptic labels, the curator explains how the modern museum strives to make the material accessible to the public: “There is a lot of text, which is characteristic of how we present things, from major text on the largest panels down to the details on the labels, so you can read as little or as much as you want. We’ve put out not all, but much of the contents of the warrior’s tomb from Narce and a lady’s tomb, which we think is his wife’s because they share a pottery vessel in common which depicts a human figure between two horses.”
People often use the expression “mysterious Etruscans” because there is still much we do not know about this culture that flourished in the Tuscan towns north of Rome from the Seventh Century BC until the end of that millennium during the heydays of the Greek city states and the Roman Republic. Romano points out, “We understand the language — it’s certainly translatable — but we still don’t quite understand where the Etruscans came from. The language was in Italy before the Latin tribes entered. It’s a non-Indo European language; Basque, Finnish and Hungarian are the other three.”
If visitors press a button they can hear archaeologist Jean MacIntosh Turfa read an Etruscan inscription that sounds rather soothing — like Arwen Evenstar speaking Elvish in The Lord of the Rings. An illuminated map of the trading reach of the Etruscan world also helps modern travelers understand how the civilization acquired its luxury goods, such as amber for jewelry from the Baltic region.
If the Etruscans were famous seafarers and traders, they also were ardent collectors with a passion for imported Greek pottery. So many Greek vases came out of Etruscan tombs that excavators once thought that they were made in Italy. In fact, they were made in Greece, sometimes with modifications designed to appeal to the Etruscan market, much as England and France made ceramics for the American market during the Nineteenth Century.
Many of the tombs found in Italy were painted with scenes of banqueting, drinking and dancing, which give an idealized or “perfect afterlife” record of the Etruscans at play. By ancient standards, the women of the culture led fairly liberated lives, reclining alongside their husbands to dine. In addition to their favorite decorated Greek pots, the Etruscans were buried with jewelry, bronze figures, armor and the shining black bucchero pottery they made in their own kilns.
The attractive presentation of artifacts, descriptive labels and interactive displays in the new University Museum galleries help it serve the diverse segments of the community that make use of the institution ranging from school children to scholars. “The last major renovation of this space was in the 1950s and it was used to display only a few pieces of sculpture,” says Romano. “We have 30,000 pieces in the Mediterranean section permanent collections and while a lot is still in storage, we do have 1,400 pieces out now, which is a very high percentage for this museum.”
The new Guide to the Etruscan and Roman Worlds available for purchase at the museum opens with a fascinating chapter on how these permanent collections were formed. Today ethical institutions can rarely remove ancient artifacts from the countries of their origin, even when they fund the excavations, and only purchase objects on the antiquities market when they are absolutely sure they have not been illegally excavated. But back in the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries, collecting ancient art was very similar to collecting Chippendale furniture or Old Master’s paintings. In 1895, the University Museum made a deal with Arthur L. Frothingham, Jr, Princeton professor and associate director of the American School in Rome, to help them find some first-rate archaeological material for the young museum.
Frothingham’s efforts were largely responsible for the strength of the Etruscan collection and he also helped acquire a group of 45 marble sculptures from the sanctuary of Diana Nemorensis on the shores of Lake Nemi, south of Rome. The lake was a favorite resort of that era’s rich and famous explains the curator, “I’ve been back at the site excavating. There’s a villa of Julius Caesar along the shores of this same lake just around the corner from the sanctuary.” The museum also owns a monumental example of ancient recycling, a block of marble from Puteoli in Southern Italy that was once used for an inscription honoring the Emperor Domitian around AD 95 and later “erased,” so the reverse side could be carved into a relief for an arch erected by the Emperor Trajan in AD 102. Romano is currently working on a complete catalog of the museum’s Greek and Roman sculpture.
Among the transformations wrought by the recent renovation is the addition of state-of-the-art lighting throughout the galleries ranging from track bars overhead to tiny fiber optic glimmers around the ancient coin display. Ahead lie efforts to fund a very costly climate control installation for the entire museum. Director Dr Jeremy Sabloff says, “These newly renovated galleries are part of the ongoing ‘modernization’ of the museum. We are delighted to invite visitors to explore and discover the classical world in a way that shows its enduring legacy.”
The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology is at 3260 South Street, across from Franklin Field. Adjacent parking is available for a fee and a commuter train station is nearby. For more information, call 215-898-4000 or visit www.museum.upenn.edu.
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