Behind every exhibition–physical or digital–are countless stories that are left untold. Every object has the potential to tell multiple stories. For example, when you look at a pot, you can choose to talk about what the images are and what they represent, or you could talk about how it was made back in ancient times. Maybe you want to just use the pot as an illustration of a historical event or aspect of society in antiquity. Alternatively, you could highlight how, where, and when it was discovered, or how it got to the museum. It’s up to the curator to decide which story to tell. But, if you’re as curious as I am when you visit an exhibition, you might wonder, ‘Who came up with this idea?’ ‘Who designed the labels?’ ‘Why was this object selected?’
That’s why I thought I’d start off the Victory Blog with a little behind-the-scenes tour of the making of this website. I’m far from being a curator, but I was lucky enough this year to get to ‘play curator’ as part of my coursework, and it has been an unforgettable learning experience and makes me truly appreciate and admire what curators and museum workers have to do! So I hope this post is less self-indulgent than it seems, and actually speaks for the work that curators, web designers, and museum educators do! And for the reader, I hope that finding out the answers to those questions listed above are just as interesting as finding the answers to questions like, ‘Where was this object found?’ and ‘What type of vase is this?’ They help us understand how we construct our own stories and conjure up our own unique images of the ancient Greeks.
So, here are some FAQs about The Art of Victory and my work on it.
Where did you get the idea to create The Art of Victory?
Last summer, when I was brainstorming what I wanted to do for my MPhil dissertation, I thought it wouldn’t hurt to ask my supervisors if it would be possible to do a project such as designing an exhibition for my dissertation, or at least to accompany it. I was more than thrilled when they responded with enthusiasm, and after getting the green light from the Faculty, we started brainstorming what topic/theme for my dissertation-display. Since the Olympics were coming up, we thought that doing something Olympics-related would be appropriate.
What other ideas did you have for an online gallery?
There were a few ‘rejected’ themes and titles, actually. For example, one of my supervisors and I thought it might be neat to explore sport and democracy, so I started researching that idea more. Easy to write about, but very difficult to display. It wasn’t until late in November or December that I had a walk around the Fitz’ Greek and Roman Gallery by myself and noticed all the different portrayals of victory and modes of commemoration that I thought, ‘Hey, victory is an interesting image and idea,’ and talking about the different ways of commemorating would also allow me to talk about the different forms of competition manifested in sports. That’s when I came up with the idea of the ‘art’ of victory, which (I hope people gather) has a double meaning: victory was an ‘art’ to the ancient Greeks in the sense that it was a skill that required intense training to win, and it was also a type of social performance (or in many cases, fortune!). At the same time, victory was more than an achievement and the end of a competition—it was one of the most powerful ideas and images in Greek art that touches on so many other ideas about social prominence, religion, and beauty, and that’s what this online gallery hopes to show. And from a marketing perspective, ‘The Art of Victory’ just sounded nice. (My dissertation was titled ‘Rivalling Panhellenism: Competition and Commemoration in Ancient Greek Athletics,’ which was just a little too pedantic and contained to many loaded words for an exhibition in my opinion!)
Why is this exhibition online instead of in the physical space?
Initially I wanted to do a physical exhibition, but there wasn’t space or time available at the Fitz or the Cast Gallery. So my supervisor at the time (Dr. Kate Cooper) suggested an online gallery. It just so happened that the online galleries were being updated anyway, so this would be a perfect opportunity to be part of the ‘renovation.’ It’s a blessing in disguise, really; you can do so much online that you can’t do in a physical space– like have maps and word definitions pop up when you want them to, and closer views of object details that you probably don’t get to see if it were behind glass.
How did you pick objects for this gallery?
I think I had a very atypical experience in ‘curating’ this gallery. Most curators don’t have the luxury of starting with a theme, and then being able to ‘shop’ for objects. To start, I looked at lots of different exhibition catalogues of similar exhibitions, thought about what I liked and didn’t like about objects selected and how they were described. Then, I thought about specific points I wanted to get across in this gallery, or specific questions I wanted to answer. The hardest part is matching images and objects with those ideas that I want to talk about. It’s a back-and-forth between looking at the physical objects, writing something about them, and then seeing if the object is a good illustration of what you’ve written (and vice versa).
- getting some close-up camera phone shots
Dr. Lucilla Burn taught me how to ‘choose’ objects during the ‘shopping’ stage. She’s a wizard with pottery and just about everything, and really helped me think through every stage of the process. First and foremost, you have to consider whether the object is the best illustration of your relevant point. But you also have to think about aesthetics– ‘wholeness,’ and really subjective things like how ‘nice’ the object is. Again, though, there’s a back-and-forth between these criteria and the point you’re trying to make. At one point, I had a list of objects that included about four different red-figure kylikes of athletes holding strigils. They were beautiful, and I had a certain affection for them, but I couldn’t really use each one without repeating myself, and the last thing I wanted to do was to just have a display that catalogued every pot with an athlete or winged victory on it. So I ended up only including one of those kylikes of athletes holding strigils in the end (object 4).
And, I should add, going around museums and into the storage rooms at the Fitz was probably my favorite part of the whole process. There’s just nothing like getting up close and personal with these objects! I would have my notepad and pen out, scribbling notes like a madwoman, and taking pictures on my phone to help me remember which objects I was considering. Handling pots that people made and used thousands of years ago is a thrilling experience (but you have to control yourself and be very careful, too)!
What were some of the challenges you encountered?
- Sketching page designs
I think the hardest part about this project was writing the labels, but it was also the most rewarding part, and something that I really enjoyed doing. Writing short, 120-words-or less (roughly), descriptions that not only describe the object, but also relevant historical or archaeological or artistic ideas for a general audience is a lot harder than you think when you’re used to churning out pages for academicians who want lots of footnotes and complicated ideas. I like figuring out how to write something that’s punchy but not ‘dumbed-down’ at all; it’s very rewarding
Second hardest part? Building the website itself. I had a really solid idea of what I wanted it to look like and how I wanted it to function, but I had no idea how to build it. I’m no programmer, so I’m lucky when Shaun Osborne volunteered his time to get me started. I owe a huge shout-out to him! I had to do a lot on my own, though—all of the design is my own, and the little details like spoilers (drop-down menus for additional information), embedded photo galleries, hover-text, and map pop-ups were my ideas. I did a lot of wireframing by hand and then some mock-ups in photoshop and power point, but the problem was how I would make them actually work, which is where Shaun stepped in and told me, ‘You don’t have to reinvent the wheel here!’ We searched for different kinds of WordPress plugins, and I even learned quite a bit of html to get all of that working…in a period of about ten days!
- an early mock-up of an object page
How long did it take to ‘build’ the gallery?
The actual construction of the website took less than two weeks. However, I had been working on the narrative (researching for and writing the dissertation, all of the object information, etc.) for about two or three months already. And like I said, I was brainstorming this project since last summer. As an MPhil student, you’re supposed to be working on your dissertation all year. While I wasn’t working specifically on writing things for The Art of Victory over the 9-month course, I had to be thinking about how all my other essays and exercises would build up to this. So a lot of my research built on itself over the year, even when I was writing about things like Myron’s discobolus or even Athenian drama. When you’re in the middle of all your coursework, you think, ‘How am I ever going to get any of this done?’ but you also realize you’ve read quite a lot already and that the hardest part is just synthesizing the material into something new and imaginative.
What objects really stand out for you?
Tough question. I suppose I have two personal favorites. The first is the red-figure kylix of athletes (object 3), with the boy inside the krater on the tondo. I think it’s a fantastic combination of scenes, and your spirits are immediately lifted when you see it…or when you drink the spirits inside the cup! I also love the inscription, which is very common, but particularly apt for a boy who looks like he’s bathing in a bowl of wine– HO PAIS KALOS: “The boy is cute, eh?” I also like what it represents. It dates to a point, chronologically and iconographically, where we begin to see a shift from very ‘active’ and ‘competitive’ athletes on pottery to more ‘non-competitive’ and ‘abstract’ scenes.
The second one is the Nike Paionios. To me, she really captures this ‘double movement’ of competition and commemoration:even the act of commemoration was a competitive act. It’s not just ‘Oh yes, the Greeks competed over everything,’ but that images were meant to inspire competition– whether that was because they were symbols of military or athletic victory, or because they were strategically placed (like the Nike Paionios), or simply because they were stunning to look at. She’s been getting quite a lot of press recently because the 2012 Olympic Medals have her on them (in two ways!), but I’m going to save my commentary for later posts and leave space for future commentators to write.
Glory is an MPhil student in Classics at the University of Cambridge. Her research interests include Athenian social and political history, athletic art, and the collection and display of antiquity.