By Kristen Mabie
Unlike a computer from a decade ago that has been rendered virtually useless in society, art from thousands of years ago has not lost its ability to captivate. The McMullen Museum proved this with their most recent exhibition, Roman in the Provinces, produced in collaboration with Yale University where the exhibition was on display last autumn. The idea for this exhibition was born after the last co-op exhibit between Yale and Boston College showcased ancient works in 2011 and the two universities were inspired to create an exhibition that explores the limitations and concepts of Roman art as it relates to Roman provinces.
Entering the McMullen Museum the evening of the opening of Roman in the Provinces, I was immediately engrossed in shades of taupe and soft, warm earth tones created by the interior of the museum and the composition of mosaics, sculptures and architectural fragments erected in Europe as early as the beginning of the Common Era. The works on display, ranging from architecture that more clearly relates to imperial Rome, to the more subtle aspects of provincial life such as what glassware was placed out for dinner guests, allow the viewer to explore many aspects of the Roman Provinces – each as intriguing as the last. It did not take me long to realize this exhibition was not going to cater to the traditional impression of art in the Roman Empire; within the alcoves of the upper floor alone I found art from many regions ranging from Italy, to modern-day Turkey and the United Kingdom. Having such a wide range of art in one place creates a visual timeline for the viewer to explore spanning hundreds of years and multiple regions.
The longer I wandered through the exhibition, examining the tiny treasures in the farthest corners of the museum, the more guests arrived. At each piece, small groups gathered to have hushed conversations, the mysterious nature of the art causing almost every visitor to pause and read the sign, pouring over the stories of each object’s former life. I overheard a woman ask, “What is this beautiful thing?” which was surely the question on everybody’s lips. With furrowed brows, each guest walked curiously from piece to piece. I’m confident I appeared as curious as all the other guests as I examined a small, silver statuette that vaguely reminded me of Edgar Degas’s dancers.
Though the exhibition takes place in an art museum, and the artifacts are undoubtedly works of art, the experience at Roman in the Provinces is as much about anthropological and historical learning as it is about art history. There is something uniquely absurd about standing in front of an article of clothing from nearly 2,000 years ago. I struggled to comprehend the idea that these objects were masterfully preserved since the times of late antiquity and their paths have brought them here, to the campus of Boston College. Reading about a linen tunic belonging to a child in 6th-8th century Egypt, I was stunned – it was in perfect condition. Over the course of the evening, I watched multiple other guests become enamored with the tunic, with the child you can imagine running around in it, ancient history suddenly becoming not a dusty relic but something tangibly human. Standing inches from an artifact like that tunic, or the beautiful, expansive mosaics also on display, it is impossible to conceive the amount of history that has occurred between this artwork’s creation and the thoughts you have looking at it.
Almost an hour into the exhibition, Nancy Netzer, the museum’s director, gave a talk and I gathered, along with all the other guests, among the ancient busts. As I looked around me, between the heads of students and faculty members were marble sculptures of deities and elites from the Roman Empire – quite the gathering of individuals! Professor Gail Hoffman, another of the evening’s speakers, expressed that the exhibit was designed to invite visitors to these provinces and urge them to ask, “What did it mean to be Roman there?” The exhibit encourages visitors to reconsider their perceptions of the Roman Empire and look deeper, allowing each object to tell its story.