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Review: Troy: Myth and Reality

Clementine Scott reviews this year's BP exhibition at the British Museum

It would be hard to think of another set of myths that are so present in contemporary culture as those surrounding the fall of Troy and its aftermath, immortalised most notably by Homer and Virgil. Stories such as the judgment of Paris, which sets the war in motion, the deception of the ‘Trojan Horse’ and Odysseus’ encounter with the Cyclops during his decade-long journey home are many people’s first introduction to the classical past as children, and the past few years have seen a resurgence of the Trojan cycle in popular culture. Novels such as Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles and Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls have reconsidered the war and its characters from different angles, and the BBC’s Troy: Fall of a City adaptation brought the saga to a generation raised on Game of Thrones. Therefore, the British Museum chose an opportune time for this year’s BP exhibition, Troy: myth and reality, which aims ambitiously to exhibit artistic depictions of the well-known myths and their various post-classical reinterpretations alongside the archaeological evidence that Troy and the war actually existed.

The exhibition began promisingly, with the three clear strands of myth, reinterpretation and reality laid out in the entranceway, with one of the most famous Troy-related classical works of art, the Athenian black-figure vase depicting Achilles killing Penthesilea, exhibited alongside pottery found at Hisarlik (the modern name for the site thought to be the location of the real Troy) and two contemporary works by Cy Twombly and Anthony Caro. The latter was particularly effectively placed, since it uses sculptures of salvaged wood and steel to represent the ruined remains of the battlefield itself, revealing an interesting relationship between archaeological reality and artistic interpretation. However, this interplay between fact, fiction and retelling was not entirely followed through in the main gallery.

After a brief yet fascinating display of artistic and papyrus evidence of Homer and Virgil’s popular significance in the ancient world (not least in the ancient schoolroom, where the epics were used to teach literacy just as the stories contained within them are fixtures of modern children’s books), what followed was a rather simplistic unloading of the Museum’s holdings of Greek, Etruscan and Roman pottery and sarcophagi depicting the Trojan myths, in an unimaginative chronological order from the judgment of Paris to Odysseus’ return to Ithaca. Given the relatively high level of familiarity the general public has with these myths (even if one is not, like this reviewer, a classics student), this part of the exhibition put too much emphasis on explaining well-known stories and not enough on discussing key themes and controversies within them. Some interesting points of discussion were touched upon in the labels, such as Helen’s agency (or lack of it) in her affair with Paris, the level of involvement and culpability of the gods during the war, the habit of later Greeks to use the Homeric epics to contextualise their own wars. Yet, the exhibition’s overly ambitious scope and desire to move swiftly through every story associated with Troy, in a rigid chronology, meant that these more complex ideas could never be fully expounded upon.

With this being said, there were details to be admired in the display, such as the neat division of the Trojan saga into four Ancient Greek concepts: eris (strife), polemos (war), halōsis (downfall) and nostos (homecoming). As well as this, the inventive use of technology was effective, particularly a revolving light-up display which magnified the wine-mixing bowl depicting Peleus and Thetis’ hectic wedding procession and identified the various figures, a concept previously put to good use in the British Museum’s Ashurbanipal exhibition.

The remainder of the exhibition ostensibly linked the original mythology to the exhibition’s two other strands, the archaeological reality of Troy and the post-classical interpretations of the myths. The archaeological section illuminated via recent findings and analysis of the various ancient settlements the mistakes made by the Victorian pioneer Heinrich Schliemann – chiefly that he set out with the intention of ‘finding Troy’ and thus made wild assumptions along the way, rather than excavating systematically. However, with the entire archaeological portion of the exhibition sectioned off into an annex at the far end of the gallery, it was difficult not to feel as though the archaeological findings comprised a separate exhibition, not fully integrated with the previous mythology-focused exhibit.

A similar problem followed in the exhibition’s final section, wherein various post-classical artistic and literary responses to the Trojan cycle were organised thematically, through themes such as ‘journeys’, ‘conflict’, and the depiction of women, a curatorial approach one wishes had been taken in the earlier classical galleries. It is worth saying that the content of this gallery was the most varied and interesting part of the exhibition. The artefacts on display ranged from medieval manuscripts claiming that London was founded by a descendant of Aeneas, to Max Slevogt’s prints depicting the brutal rage of Achilles on the eve of the First World War, to Hans Eworth’s intriguing gender reversal depicting Elizabeth I playing the role of Paris in the famous judgment scene. It was also a powerful choice to have some artworks accompanied by commentary from charities linking the myths to their own work, indicating that the relevance of the ancient epics extends beyond art and culture to politics and psychology. The veterans’ charity Waterloo Uncovered found psychological resonance in Odysseus’ emotional turmoil, while Crisis saw similarities between Aeneas’ journey and that of the modern refugee. 

However, not only did it seem a shame that the classical galleries did not share the curatorial ingenuity of the later galleries, it also seemed to contradict the concept of the whole exhibition to have classical and post-classical art displayed separately. A dual display of a classical and a modern interpretation of a particular myth, alongside evidence of the real city of Troy, would have more effectively shown the contrast between classical and more modern worldviews as well as the continued relevance of the Trojan cycle, and would have formed the exhibition into a cohesive whole. In reality, with the strict delineation of myth, reality and modern interpretation, Troy: myth and reality felt like three separate exhibitions which, while intriguing and rich in content, felt entirely unintegrated with one another. 

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