V. Today

America, Antiquity, & Collecting Today 

Black and white photograph featuring a head-on view of four rows of capital columns extending into the distance.

William Wylie, Pompeii (Peristyle, House of the Colored Capitals), 2015, pigment print. Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Promised Gift, Jennifer Press, 46.2021.4.

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Today, Greek and Roman literature is no longer the foundation of the liberal arts curriculum in America. Nor is classical Athens still held as the pinnacle in the history of art and human civilization. And, except in their imaginations (and portraiture), Americans never became citizens of the ancient Mediterranean, much less Romans or Greeks. But the passionate and ongoing pursuit of Mediterranean culture by diverse Americans and for different and often very personal reasons provides ample evidence that American identities, individual and national, have been profoundly shaped through reference to and consumption of the ancient Mediterranean world. 

While the architecture of public buildings like the Bowdoin College Museum of Art recalls previous American generations’ affinity for antiquity, today’s popular culture reveals the ongoing ways the ancient Mediterranean is alive and well in the American imagination. Ancient myth and history are the subject of countless recent films, prestige television series, novels, and video games. Likewise, Bowdoin classes from across the curriculum continue to engage with objects from the antiquities collections of the BCMA and with prints and paintings that bring the past to life in the Museum’s seminar room. As a result, Bowdoin students have undertaken original research projects on everything from Greek vases to ancient coins, created pop-up exhibitions on Goltzius’s (1558–1617) print series of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and produced virtual exhibitions like “Spectacle” on aspects of life in the ancient Mediterranean world. The creative ways Bowdoin students engage antiquities at the Museum is a testament to the continued relevance of the Mediterranean past.

What about the actual antiquities? Attitudes and laws governing the collecting of antiquities have changed dramatically since the nineteenth century, when the bulk of Bowdoin’s collection was formed. And the Museum welcomes recent attention to role of antiquities in museums collections and the protection of cultural heritage. In 1977 the Adela Woods Smith Trust was established for the purchase of Greek art in honor of Bowdoin alumnus Harry de Forest Smith (Class of 1891). The trust has enabled the Museum to build its antiquities collection over the last three decades and recent acquisitions are on in the exhibition. Care has been taken to ensure acquisitions adhere to international law and ethical standards for museums. The Museum is committed to the protection of cultural heritage in cooperation with partners around the world as well as to educating the public through exhibitions and programming.

The Bowdoin College Museum of Art still believes that museum institutions across the world should acquire and display antiquities from the ancient Mediterranean and beyond. In many ways, museums, which operate for the public good on a non-profit basis and are dedicated to education and sharing knowledge, are ideal places for ancient art and artifacts to be held in trust. However, a belief in the fundamental good of museums should not blind us to the fact that museums are not neutral spaces, and that the behavior of museums and museum professionals has not always been for the public good. Continued acquisition and display of ancient art and artifacts must be coupled with an evolving understanding of the care of cultural heritage and of the complicated—all-too-often appalling—histories of collecting that have been marked by power imbalances, colonialism, and often, outright theft and looting.

Jim Higginbotham, Associate Professor of Classics on the Henry Johnson Professorship Fund and Associate Curator for the Ancient Collection in the Museum of Art, and his students examine objects from the ancient collection. Photo: Bob Handelman (Bob Handelman Images).

Contemporary artists continue to creatively engage the ancient past too, a trend that is not confined to Mediterranean antiquity. Indeed, a willingness to mine past cultures and find inspiration in historic visual traditions is one of the most exciting developments in contemporary arts in recent decades. Today artists across the world are finding inspiration in ancient art and history and by revisiting historic mediums. In recent years, the Bowdoin College Museum of Art has acquired exciting new works by artists like Herve Youmbi, Jeffery Gibson, Shazia Sikander, Yun-fei Ji, and Celia Vasquez Yui, whose artworks weave together past and present as they critically engage complicated histories and traditional ways of making. 

The ancient past continues to be a rich source of inspiration for artists looking towards the ancient Mediterranean world as well. In keeping with the tradition of generations of artists from the European Renaissance to the late-nineteenth century American Renaissance, Antiquity & America features works by three contemporary artists that illustrate how new meaning is created through renewed engagement with antiquity. The large-scale photographs by William Wylie (b. 1957) from the five-year photographic project the Pompeii Archive for example, transform the familiar tourist site into a living landscape marked by the passage of time and cycles of ruin and repair. In the photos’ attention to architectural detail and their manipulation of scale and perspective, they evoke Piranesi’s (1720–1778) earlier prints, while revealing a penetrating knowledge of the layered histories of the archaeological site.

Caption TK.

Also exploring the cyclical and epochal nature of time and civilization, sculptor Bradley Borthwick’s (b. 1973) commissioned installation, The Phoenician: Anticipating Gadir, results from sustained and research-driven engagement with the ancient world. Borthwick’s work draws on ancient Mediterranean models of art and architecture in order to meditate on our relationship to our pasts and the passage of time in ways that recall the work of Thomas Cole (1801–1848) two centuries earlier. In The Phoenician, beeswax amphorae are cast from an ancient Phoenician vessel excavated from the seafloor in the twentieth century and stacked atop a floating brass plate. The installation evokes the distant past and the reach of the Phoenician trading empire, which extended across the Mediterranean, while at the same time interrogating the repercussions of empire in the present.

Another commissioned piece by the artist Michael Rakowitz (b. 1973), considers these repercussions as they apply to antiquities as cultural heritage. Rakowitz’s ongoing series The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist, which consist of papier-mâché artifacts made of Arabic newsprint and packaging, began as a response to the looting of the Iraq Museum in 2003, when over ten thousand artifacts were stolen in a few short days after US forces invaded Bagdad. The project has since incorporated objects looted during the ongoing Syrian civil war and those destroyed by ISIS in Iraq. The BCMA’s commission of an artifact from Rakowitz’s studio that explores the history of a Mesopotamian object lost from the BCMA collections: a small clay cylinder seal recording the dedication of a temple by Gudea, ruler of Lagash, in the second millennium BCE. The cone, originally gifted by Mary (1839–1904) and Harriet Walker (1844–1898) on the opening of the Walker Art Building, was lost sometime before the publication of the antiquities collection in 1962. Attempts to track down the object have been unsuccessful today. Recreated in papier-mâché using Arabic language newsprint and product labels, complete with applied cuneiform text accurate to the original object, this new artifact by Rakowitz marks an exciting turn in the Invisible Enemy series as the first object in the series from American or European collections.