Museum of Classical Archaeology at Cambridge

Life’s been a bit dull since I handed in my thesis (which went very well!), but it was broken by the pleasant opportunity to give a tour of the Cast Gallery (the most visible part of the Museum of Classical Archaeology at Cambridge).

The Cast Gallery is nestled above the foyer of the Classics Faculty and is really pretty awesome. I have to admit though, ‘pretty awesome’ was not how I first thought of the Cast Gallery. I think my thoughts were more along the lines of, ‘I’m in frickin’ Cambridge, and the best you can do, Classics Faculty, are some plaster casts?’ (Being in Magic Fairy Tale Unicorn Land gave me some unreasonable expectations… 1). After I gave the Cast Gallery a good look around, however, I realized that it was pretty much one of the most awesome tools I could expect to have as a Classicist. Oh, you’d like a look at the Farnese Heracles? Screw the textbook, how about we just go have at the full-sized 3 dimensional copy chillin’ upstairs?

Farnese Herakles

To give you an idea of what I mean by full-size, I’m about eye-level with his wrist (though wrist wasn’t the first thing I thought of when I thought of things I’m eye-level with on that particular statue). I am rather short, but you’ve got to admit that’s pretty impressive.

I learned that in the Victorian Era it was rather common to make plaster casts of famous Greek and Roman Statues and to collect them at Universities so students could study the Classical artwork first hand. Though it seems like excess to us today (you’ll note that ‘Cast Galleries’ are not particularly common anymore…), they were the most practical means of going about Classical Art at the time. Photographs weren’t really a thing, you wouldn’t want to be dependent on an artist’s interpretation or expect a drawing of every statue that was found, and traveling around Europe to see the actual item was certainly not a practicality for most (even the wealthy Oxbridge stereotype (far more common then than now, thank the gods)). So the cast galleries arose as the next best thing.

Today, however, we can still find a cast gallery incredibly useful: we get a 360 view of the cast, we can see famous art up close and we really get a sense of the scale of the items, we can see pediments and groups which are separated into different museums now together as they would have been in the Classical period, sometimes the casts were made before modern damage was done to the original, and we can paint on the casts to try to emulate what they might have looked like to the Roman or Greek viewer.

If we consider the Farnese Heracles again, the cast gallery gives us the chance to pop around to the back and take a look at the apples he’s hiding in his right hand. A 360 view can give us a lot of information about the statue that we wouldn’t otherwise have gotten. We can ask interesting questions about the 3 dimensions of the object – for example the Roman copy of this statue was displayed in the Baths of Carcalla. The guide sold by the Cast Gallery asks us, “Do you think it mattered that viewers could not walk around the statue – or take a peep at the apples hidden behind Heracles’ back?”

Also incredibly impressive is scale. This first is me standing next to the Samian Kouros. I’m 5’3/4″ (I’ve included a full shot of him too):

Samian Kouros

Temple of Zeus at Olympia East Pediment

This second is the East Pediment of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia. I haven’t been able to take or find a photo that does it justice. The thing is just huge, it’s amazing to be able to look around behind the sculptures – I don’t know how well it’s visible on the original, but it’s pretty cool to be able to see the groping Centaur’s leg wrapping around the damsel in distress. And when you see a pediment of that scale…and then imagine it just chilling on the top of a temple, you really get a frisson – the merest reflection of what it must have been like for the Greeks as they approached it.

It’s also exciting to mess around with casts a bit – here’s an example of how a koure might have looked painted:

Peplos Kore

Peplos Kore

Though it’s reasonably well known now that our Romantic ideal of gleaming white Classical sculpture is a farce, it is still shocking to see the bright colors that seem almost garish to the modern eye. Here’s a good article on it if this is news to you: That Classic White Sculpture Once Had a Paint Job. On a related note, the Philadelphia Art Museum has really captured what painted sculpture might have looked like to the Classical eye:

Frieze at the Philadelphia Art Museum

I also recommend doing a google image search of ‘Philadelphia Art Museum Frieze’, because there are several stunning photos of it on flikr that I can’t post here :(

So this was the gallery I gave a tour of on Thursday and Friday of last week. I’m not sure if the previous content of my blog has made this clear, but I’m not an art history person. I found, however, that it was actually not too difficult to show people around the gallery. In one of our cases of actual artifacts, we had a bronze strigil and several aryballoi. The aryballoi contained the oil the athletes would clean themselves with, and the strigil was used for scraping the oil off. After showing these items in the case, it was fun to get our guests to try to find the statues depicting these items.

Apoxyomenos

Athlete Pouring Oil

The first shows an athlete actually using the tool shown in the case, which was a nice way to link physical items to the somewhat more symbolic nature of culture depicted in sculpture. It was nice to show in the second figure that we could identify him as an athlete because he had a strigil and aryballos depicted beside him.

A fun example of the medium of a cast giving us freedom to experiment with Classical sculpture is epitomized in the giant Athene sculpture you may remember I dedicated my thesis to (in this post). Here’s a better photo of her from the side:

Amelung’s Athena

This Athene does not actually exist as a piece of Classical work – it was a composite meant to emulate Athena Parthenos and gives a suggestion of what she might have looked like. Because before photoshop, if you wanted to stick together bits of different sculptures, you had to stick together bits of different sculptures :)

I think my favorite piece in the cast gallery though is from the Aegina Pediments. I love the Classical smiles on the wounded soldiers:

Aegina Soldier

They seem to be thinking, ‘Oh dear, I seem to be mortally wounded. Well, that is a bit inconvenient.’

When placed in contrast to the Dying Gaul or the Laocoön, they seem almost comedic:

The Dying Gaul

Laocoön Group

So, if you happen to be in the vicinity of Cambridge at some point, I highly recommend visiting the Cast Gallery. Giving tours of it was one of the more unexpectedly rewarding experiences of my time here. Before my brief time touring, I really couldn’t have cared less about Classical Art. I can’t believe how quickly that changed the second I gave a tour of that gallery. I’m really looking forward to getting to know my Classical Art better. Also, if you happen to visit the Cast Gallery, I highly recommend the little guide book they sell for £5. It has highlighted 15 pieces from the museum and not only gives an engaging discussion about each piece, but also provides questions to suggest ways you might approach the piece – and it does it in a way that is not patronizing or childish. This is a guidebook that was clearly written as much as a guide for adults and Classicists as for school groups. Best five quid I’ve spent in a while.


1. I say this purely as a joke. To those of you who think Cambridge is full of posh prigs, I have to assume you’ve never spent any time with Cambridge students. I’m not saying they don’t exist here, but I would like to emphasize that we do not come here expecting port, three course formals, and fancy balls, and if we seem to enjoy them, it think you’ll find that you would too if someone said, “Here, have fancy food and wine for £8, oh and also go to probably the best party of your life in June to celebrate your exams being done.” And like anyone who is routinely exposed to these things, you will get jaded and come to expect them…at Cambridge. I’ve not heard any stories of Cantabrigians who go home and insist on cheese and port after every meal. I think a lot of the antagonism toward Oxbridge comes from its heritage (originally, admittedly posh) and not from any recent empirical evidence. Sorry – it’s a sore spot for me.

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2 comments on “Museum of Classical Archaeology at Cambridge

  1. John Cowan says:

    Like the Spartans said (and my mother said too): “When the fox gnaws, smile.”

  2. lol, I like that. It never occurred to me to think they were gritting their teeth behind those serene smiles.

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