Sunday, 9 December 2012

Bronze at the Royal Academy

On Friday I managed to get chance to visit the Royal Academy's well-hyped Bronze exhibition just before it closes (though the pedant in me thinks it should should surely have been called 'Copper Alloy'). The main draw for me, as I suspect it was for many other archaeologists, was to see the controversial Crosby Garrett helmet on public display for the first time, but more of that shortly.

I'm always slightly wary of art exhibitions that feature archaeology, as the tendency is to show archaeology as little more than a source of 'ancient art' - of interest purely for its aesthetic value. I was also a little perturbed by the entrance price of £15, though I'm conscious that my membership of the Museums Association means I get into most museum exhibitions in the country free, and thankfully avoid the costs that 'normal', full price paying visitors have to stump up each time. It certainly has an effect on the way you view and experience an exhibition.

The first thing to say is that the selection of objects was simply stunning - the chronological and geographical variety was very well planned and executed. The curators deserve applause for a wonderfully successful mixture of the spectacular and the unusual, the ancient and the modern. I never knew what would be round the next corner, but I was never disappointed when I turned it.

The thematic arrangement worked well, allowing objects to be logically grouped, but in themes wide enough to retain a sense of variety in each room. Although often overlooked, whoever did the lighting also deserves credit, as great use was made of dramatic lighting without causing distracting shadows or blinding the audience.

One minor gripe would be the labelling. Why was there only one label for each object when there was clearly space for the label to be repeated, stopping crowds of people jostling for position to read it? Also, the interpretation had a tendency to fall into the minimalist 'art' category, when some objects were crying out to have more detailed stories told. Often, crucial details about an object appeared on the introductory panels to each room rather than on the object label itself.

There was also some odd juxtapositioning of objects, labels and wall panels which caused avoidable bottle necks. This was most notable in the very first room, where the single tiny label for the large 'Dancing Satyr' statue (on a large flat plinth) was placed at the same corner of the room as the introductory text on the wall, causing people to congregate in one tiny space and struggle to read either text properly.

Every exhibition of this type brings you into contact with objects and artworks you didn't know existed, and Bronze had some memorable moments indeed. I'm sure I'm far from the only visitor struck by the scale, drama and sheer quality of the large scale Perseus holding aloft Medusa's severed head.

I was also pleased to discover a gilded Romano-Gaulish statuette of Mercury that I didn't know existed, though it was portrayed with such musculature that without the caduceus it was holding, it would surely have looked more like Hercules!

So what about the Crosby Garrett helmet, the star of the show for those of us who have followed its controversial history since discovery? Naturally, and understandably considering it is on loan from its mysterious new owner, the exhibition label made no reference at all to its discovery, auction sale or the questions it has raised about the aptness of the current description of 'treasure' under the 1996 Act.

Despite being an undoubtedly spectacular object, I'm afraid seeing it made me feel more sad than awestruck - its immaculate appearance the result of hurried restoration to maximise auction profit rather than careful conservation to reveal archaeological information. A textbook example of an important archaeological object turned into a shiny art exhibit. I'm afraid I'd rather have been at Tullie House museum in Carlisle looking at 60-odd pieces of stabilised metal with a reconstruction drawing of 'how it might have looked' than the shiny, over restored objet d'art presented here. It certainly draws comparisons with the lengthy and painstaking archaeological conservation work that has been done on another recent Roman cavalry helmet find - from the Hallaton site, now on display at the wonderful Market Harborough Museum.

Overall though, I won't let my niggles over the legal status of archaeological finds detract from an excellent and eye-opening show, which proved itself worthy of that entrance fee.

No comments:

Post a Comment