Gaze upon the eyes of ancient Greece

The Canadian Museum of History debuts a huge exhibit exposing the lives behind the ancients who have held our imaginations in thrall

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Marble heads of (from left) Plato, Aristotle and Demosthenes celebrate Athens as the birthplace of European philosophy. (Hellenic Ministry of Culture: Education and religious affairs)
Marble heads of (from left) Plato, Aristotle and Demosthenes celebrate Athens as the birthplace of European philosophy. (Hellenic Ministry of Culture: Education and religious affairs)

There is a turning point early in The Greeks: Agamemnon to Alexander the Great, the big summer show at the Canadian Museum of History, in Gatineau, Que., across the Ottawa River from the Parliament Buildings. The exhibition starts quietly, with some small objects from Stone Age hunter-gatherers, including carved fertility figurines, followed by early Minoan artifacts, notably, an impressive bronze double axe. But then, the visitor enters the section devoted to Mycenaean civilization—the period remembered in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey—to be greeted by a gleaming, circular, gold death mask.

Here is one of the most storied objects of world archaeological lore, never before allowed to leave Greece. The 19th-century German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann famously set out to locate the Iliad’s main cities and, having discovered and excavated Troy, moved on to searching for Mycenae, home city of Agamemnon, commander of the Greeks in the Trojan war. Schliemann found it, too, uncovering fabulous burial objects. On this historic dig in 1876, he unearthed the mask, declaring, “I have gazed upon the eyes of Agamemnon.” Later scholarship, alas, showed the object is perhaps 300 years too old to be from the era historians believe was reimagined centuries later in Homer’s epic.

But that hardly matters. Even if it doesn’t depict Agamemnon, the Mycenaean mask dazzles. And, as a potent symbol of Greek civilization’s long hold on our imaginations, it serves notice of this show’s ambition. Covering 5,000 years of history, the exhibition sets out to tell a triumphant story—nothing less than how the glory that was Greece remains the foundation of what many museum visitors will still recognize, even in the age of multiculturalism, as shared cultural values. “I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say this is where our civilization is coming from,” says curator Terence Clark.

With the Greek government’s full backing, 21 Greek museums loaned the more than 500 artifacts on display. The Canadian Museum of History led the organization of the show, but it was first uncrated this past winter at Montreal’s Pointe-à-Callière archaeology museum, where it proved enormously popular. After a planned run until Oct. 12 in Gatineau—timed to draw in Ottawa’s summer tourist throngs—the show moves on to Chicago’s Field Museum and, finally, to the National Geographic Museum in Washington.

After the Mycenaean mask, there’s no letdown, as the exhibition strides through the rise of classical Greece. A circle of bronze helmets, decorated with gold, from sometime after 530 BCE, conveys the muscle of a warrior culture. An elegant marble bas-relief from around 460 BCE shows a victorious young athlete crowning himself with an olive wreath, a gesture Clark interprets as signifying the emergence of the Greek sense of the individual. Athenian democracy is fully explored. Marble heads of Plato and Aristotle, along with one of the orator Demosthenes, celebrate the city state as the birthplace of European philosophy and politics. The final section on Alexander the Great features a famous bust of the youthful Macedonian conqueror, along with troves of spectacular gold and bronze items from Macedonian tombs.

The show’s creators strive to avoid overloading visitors with chronology. The strategy, Clark says, includes offering plenty of “little snapshots that tell an individual’s story.” Thus, instead of just displaying the burial bling of the queen called “the Lady of Archontiko” under glass, her gold is arranged on a mannequin. “You can see who this person was,” Clark says. The ancient bronze swords inside a display case can’t be touched, but a replica is there to be gripped. Press a button in front of Plato, Aristotle or Demosthenes to hear their words while looking into their time-worn marble faces.

The exceptional quality of the artifacts assembled in this show is undeniable. The only question is whether the ideas associated with the ancient Greeks can—as they have so often throughout history—again outshine even the amazing objects they left behind.

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