Dr. Anna Simandiraki-Grimshaw, co-curator and archaeologist in Aegean Bronze Age, talks about the pitfalls of archaeological exhibitions, the new angle that REPLICA KNOWLEDGE – An Archaeology of the Multiple Past presents and the standing of feminism and new media in archaeology. The archaeologist follows the ‘emic’ approach, whereby people living thousands of years ago are not treated as statistics, but as real and feeling human beings. Also through this perspective the exhibition succeeds in deconstructing myths of archaeological findings to reconstruct a variety of possible pasts. Luise Wolf, working in public relations at the Tieranatomische Theater, interviewed her.
Luise Wolf: Please introduce us to your research perspective.
Anna Simandiraki-Grimshaw: My academic background is cultural-historical and archaeological, especially in Aegean Bronze Age studies. Although this background has equipped me with established methods of archaeological research, its weakness lies in the fact that, too often, it takes a narrow view on evidence and ‘what it tells us’. Instead, we should be reflecting on ourselves, our methods, biases and historical circumstances – our specific ways of recreating or even creating the past. The exhibition traces these contexts and reflections. It displays the importance, breadth and multiple roles of replicas of Aegean Bronze Age artefacts and raises such issues as originality, identity, history, art and materiality – who excavated an object and with which hopes? Who interpreted and replicated this object and with which evidence?
So what is the message you want to provide the visitors with?
In the past I have reviewed and critiqued exhibitions regarding archaeology and archaeological artefacts, highlighting common pitfalls, such as the over-use of technical jargon, the promotion of nationalist agendas, and top-down perspectives whereby the visitors are seen as nothing more than receptacles for the knowledge imparted by the curators. It was therefore important for me and the team to treat visitors as intelligent human beings who can make decisions for themselves. We avoid jargon. We highlight but do not champion politics. And we count on the judgement of visitors by providing them – but not overwhelming them – with information. The main message we want to convey is that the past is not a free-for-all construct of modernity and postmodernity, but rather that there can be different perspectives and interpretations of the past. Replicas often aid, hinder or even perpetuate these perspectives and interpretations. But this sometimes happens even despite the originals.
Could you give us an example?
The Prince of Lilies, also known as the Priest King, is a fresco from Knossos which was found in fragments. They were put together to form a young man wearing a hat or crown topped with lilies. As has been debated subsequently, he is the construct of the excavator, Sir Arthur Evans, and the replicator, Emile Gilliéron. The torso belongs to one male figure, the legs to another male figure, the hat or crown probably to a female sphinx, a mythological creature often seen wearing this type of headgear in depictions of that time – around 1400 BC.
However, Evans spread this reconstruction, Gilliéron created several replicas of it and one of these now stands in the fresco’s place in Knossos. As its replicas multiplied, the fresco and its appeal widened, from universities and museums to the public domain, pop culture and everyday life, with adaptations as diverse as wine bottle labels and opera backdrops. Even though most scholars now agree that the fresco reconstruction is wrong, it has become iconic and is still displayed like this in the Heraklion Archaeological Museum in Crete.
Modern perspectives like feminism or postmodernism re-assessed the history of various sciences like medicine and arts, but also archaeology?
Yes, but to varying degrees. Aegean archaeology is just catching up with other archaeologies. One reason is the historically overwhelming masculine ‘gaze’ of the archaeologists and replicators, still prevalent today. This was opposed by equally partial feminine ‘projections’ of inspired artists or over-zealous feminist archaeologists, especially in the 1960s and 1970s. This prejudice of either side becomes very obvious in the case of the Snake Goddess figurines from Knossos: the original archaeologists interpreted them in often sexist ways, then feminist archaeologists and artists offered reactionary, but equally exaggerated, reinterpretations. Nevertheless, recent research has redressed this imbalance through gender-aware scholarly debates in Aegean archaeology.
Another reason for not catching up with postmodern theory has been the unwillingness of archaeologists to represent different voices in an exhibition and the expectation of the general public for unequivocal facts. People like definite answers such as ‘this is how it was’. In this exhibition we collected and showcased real, different and often gendered voices; through objects, artistic installations, interviews, video and audio pieces specifically researched and produced for this purpose. We also tried to not offer the information in a prescriptive manner, but in a way that visitors can extrapolate how the past could have been.
As a woman – how do you feel working in this field? Do you sometimes imagine yourself living at another time?
As a woman, I feel very proud working in this field. Not so much because I think I am better or worse equipped because of my sex and gender, but because I feel I can perhaps challenge gendered assumptions and interpretations that have become a norm. Female archaeologists – at least in Greek archaeology – have equalled if not surpassed men in numbers and obtained opportunities they did not have a century ago. But I must say archaeology still relies on sexism and sexual politics to some extent, invariably at women’s expense.
I have always imagined myself living in the past that I research. When I was a teenager I used to do so, but I did not want to create a fantasy; rather, to obtain an informed idea about the past. As a student and subsequent professional I continued doing this, but this time in a more mature way: in order to empathise with the people whom I study. In archaeology this is called the ‘emic’ approach: trying to not treat people like statistics or artefacts, but to empathise with them and therefore to better understand the human condition, theirs and ours.
Which forms and formats of communication does archaeology miss today?
This depends on the communicator, I think. Some excavators, curators and institutions are proactive in using open and progressive mediation formats – setting up relevant websites, using social media, having open days and giving public talks. They see these as modes of immediate and friendly communication that can interest diverse audiences. Others, although recognising that these methods are very popular, do not use them. They are afraid that these less institutional communication formats could dilute their authority by trivialising their academic status and research. In addition, they fear they could give more equal opportunities to unauthorised versions of the past, e.g. conspiracy theories, jingoism and such. I believe it is important to see the bigger picture. Archaeology has great potential beyond narrow academic or museological debates and nationalist schemes. It can help people make sense of themselves and their world, the past, the present and the future.
In REPLICA KNOWLEDGE we subvert some of the more traditional modes of communication. We have not shaped the exhibition as a dry archaeological exposition of original dates, themes and artefacts, followed by their imitation in replicas. Instead, we showcase the dialogue between the curators and the exhibits, between the replicas and the originals, between arts, sciences and humanities, between specialists and non-specialists. There are no long texts next to exhibits, thus reserving more elaborate debates for our extensive publication. We arranged exhibits in angles that would create visual dialogues between the objects and the visitors, instead of just making exhibits impose themselves on the viewers. And we hope to show that archaeology can be academically robust and aesthetically appealing.
How can archaeology prepare a unique knowledge in culture today?
For me, archaeology should be a social movement. What good is an article about a piece of pottery in an academic journal, which only about 200 specialists would read? Meanwhile entire archaeological sites – and therefore pasts – are being eradicated or distorted, affecting thousands of people. By highlighting how people used to think, act, make mistakes or triumph, but also how we know and how we interpret and use artefacts and data, we can have a more meaningful social role.
Gefördert im Programm „Fellowship Internationales Museum” der Kulturstiftung des Bundes
Exzellenzcluster »Bild Wissen Gestaltung«