Day 2: The Greeks Exhibit at the Field Museum
On New Year’s Eve, I went to the Field Museum in Chicago to see its special exhibit on the Greeks. The Museum has collected 500 artifacts from Greek museums, which cover 3500 years of history, beginning with the Minoans on Crete and other Cycladic islands. I had seen many of these pieces in their home museum, which admittedly, is already pulled from the original context, but seemed at least to beckon to the sense of the place from which they were found. Seeing them all pulled together robbed them of their aura (in the Benjaminian sense), it seemed to me. I’m glad they could pull it together for people to see, but I just want to put the plug in for going and visiting places and the museums in those places.
The exhibit aims to attract and educate a general audience beyond the caricatured view of the Greeks that they might have. I’d sum up that caricature thus: There was nothing, then there were Greeks, they believed in gods, and democracy, now we are scientists. My criticism of the exhibit would be that I think it could have been a little more nuanced, and that a general audience could still handle that. I think the curation is a bit heavy-handed in the praise-of-Greece and Greece-as-the-roots-of civilization-which-we-have-obviously-inherited kind of way.
For example, the exhibit begins with a pendant of a supplicant folded over, and then the wall next to the display depicts the suppliant on the ground slowly opening up, like the Descent of Man evolution image. Above the drawing is a quote from Epicurus, “It is folly for a man to pray to the gods for that which he has the power to obtain by himself.” The image suggests that the Greeks were the beginning of civilization, but we have finally achieved the fulfillment of civilization insofar as we recognize the power to change the world ourselves.
Another sign explained the Eleusian Mysteries as the pursuit of karmic recompense in the afterlife for the sufferings and difficulties of this one.
It isn’t just that the Eleusian Mysteries were carefully protected, but an afterlife of karmic justice–originally a Buddhist idea and an Egyptian one, one could well argue– appeared in various elements of Greek literature and culture, as when Plato has Socrates tell the Myth of Er at the end of the Republic. If that were the mystery, it wouldn’t seem like worth getting upset about the word getting out, which Greeks did get upset about (Plutarch tells of Alcibiades being accused of paradying the sacred mysteries at the same time that he was accused of destroying the Hermae). And c’mon, everyone knows the secret of the Eleusian cult is that there is no secret. (This is a joke, I’d never tell the secret.)
I laughed out loud at the Mycenaean description, as like the Minoans, but “they also had a penchant for war.” Also, I learned that tragedy is a story that starts well and ends poorly, while comedy starts poorly and ends well. But the most egregious sign, in my view, was the one describing the battle of Thermopylae.
According to this sign, the Persians threatened the very existence of democracy, so the Spartans fought courageously to defend democracy. This sign contributed to a number of caricatures that follow from an oversimplification. One caricature is the sense that the Greeks were monolithic, and that they all wanted democracy. It seems more interesting to tell a story about Greek investment in independence, which they do fight collectively for, which makes it all the more problematic that Athens tries to colonize its neighbors, which then leads to war between those who were allies against Persia. Not only is that more interesting, it’s timely. I think the general exhibit goer can handle it. Another more interesting point than the story they tell is that democracy lasted in Athens for like 30 years, maybe a hundred. We’re still talking about this thing that happened on the other side of the world twenty-five hundred years ago that didn’t last very long and wasn’t even ever fully democratic. If we are the heirs of this tradition, we should be worried that even in its roots, democracy wasn’t fully democratic. The story of why it didn’t last and how it failed to be democratic also seems like an important and timely one to tell.
I’ve been thinking for some years now about how scholars and politicians invent the Greeks that we want, which invents us as heirs of Greeks in whatever way we think best shows ourselves as the true inheritors of civilization. It’s unfortunate that the Field Museum plays into a simplified story about the Greeks, and hence, about ourselves.
Oh, but they did have this slab with a carving that was turned into a commercial that was on all the time when we were in Greece during the World Cup. I hadn’t seen it before.