I have a few confessions to make.
First, I am an archaeologist. Second, I knew very little of Heinrich Schliemann before reading Troy on Display: Scepticism and Wonder at Schliemann’s First Exhibition (I was aware only that he excavated Troy). And third, I knew very little about Troy, the Trojans or The Iliad, with my knowledge limited to a wooden horse, Helen (the face that launched a thousand ships) and Homer.
Ancient Greek literature wasn’t part of my education, or my life, and at university my interests lay in prehistoric Italy and south-east Asia instead.
So, it is fair to say I came to Abigail Baker’s book with a lot of ignorance and a dash of apathy on the subject.
The author states early on that “people have been examining the importance and effects of Schliemann’s discoveries continuously since they were announced”, and while Baker is adding to this compendium, she takes a unique approach, examining the impact of the German archaeologist’s 1877 exhibition of his Trojan finds at the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert Museum).
Troy on Display dedicates more than 200 pages to the dissection of the exhibition, with two chapters (almost a quarter of the book) devoted to reconstructing and examining the content of the show, from Schliemann’s interpretive material to its spatial layout. It also explores the exhibition’s impact beyond the museum’s walls, from artistic representation and engagement, to comedy, monetary policy, and racial and cultural identity.
The final chapter, Dream and Reality, asks why museums today are still fascinated with exploring myths and trying to find truths in them, the latest of which was the British Museum’s Troy: Myth and Reality. It’s a thorough dive into every facet of an exhibition and its influence, both positive and negative.
The book comes from the Bloomsbury Academic arm of the publishing company, and is presented in a scholarly way, featuring a muted front cover and low-quality, black-and-white images. However, despite its sedate presentation, its academic rigour is combined with great readability. With some minor reworking and better-quality pictures, it would have a wide appeal outside academia.
Inevitably, the book considers Schliemann himself. I knew little about the man, but I found him to be a curious and fascinating character. Baker examines him in a balanced manner, outlining the good and bad of his endeavours, before focusing on how he provoked debate on what we know about the past and the claims archaeology can make and who can participate in it.
While Schliemann is a problematic figure in many ways, you cannot help but admire the impact of his work. He brought archaeology and the classics to a mass audience, opening the debate on a subject that was seemingly for the elite.
However, the voice of the general public is missing. Baker has pieced together a wide variety of primary sources to tease out thoughts and feelings towards the exhibition, but these voices are mostly those of politicians, artists, scholars and famous writers. It is perhaps too much to ask in an analysis of an exhibition that took place nearly 150 years ago to garner the impact on its general visitors, but it is their view that I would have liked to get more insight about.
Such an in-depth look at an exhibition made me yearn for a similar approach to more recent groundbreaking shows such as The Other Story, curated by Rasheed Araeen at the Hayward Gallery in 1989, which could potentially include the voice of their visitors.
Elizabeth Scott is the head of Guildhall Galleries
Abigail Baker, Bloomsbury, £26.09, ISBN 9781-350114302