Troy at the British Museum: Myth and Reality
People will always tell stories. It is an obsessive, compulsive, comforting act. I was most recently reminded of this fact at the current British museum exhibition ‘Troy: Myth and Reality.’ The museum was brimming with classics students vying for the best pronunciation of Greek words, loudly talking over each other to quote their favourite passages and explain the story being depicted (despite the clear labels next to every object.) Elsewhere in the exhibition, a whole room was dedicated to adaptations of the myths, from Dryden and Shakespeare to Brad Pitt in ‘Troy.’ Through both the contents of the exhibition and overhearing snippets of visitor’s conversations it was clear to me: the need to tell stories is well and truly alive.
The word ‘story’ derives from the ancient verb ‘historia’, denoting the act of seeking knowledge. Somewhat unsurprisingly, the word ‘history’ shares this linage. Since a linguistic shift of meaning in the middle ages we have come to expect a certain objectivity from the word ‘history’, free of the opinions and elaborate stories words so often contain. However, this distinction was not always so clear;, the historical overlap between history and stories is played out on a grand scale throughout the British Museum. The presence of the Parthenon invokes multiple mythological figures; ancient Assyrian rock panels tell the stories of Kings. A fragment of the Bayeux tapestry (1) captures a moment in Medieval history.
However, through these historical artefacts we gain insight not just into ancient stories, but into modern ones. Living tales that affect people and their lives today. The Troy exhibition was punctuated with passages from people’s lives. Quite literally, people’s voices could be listened to as you considered an artwork, bringing these stories and their meaning to life. This technique is of course important when we consider the physical history of storytelling, an oratory tradition at its heart.
War was a pervasive aspect of everyday life in ancient civilisation and continues to tear apart countries on a macroscopic political scale and a microscopic personal scale across the globe. For example, the Afghanistan conflict, begun in 1978, continues to rage on today, far surpassing the brutal ten years of the Trojan war. Like Aeneas, people’s homes are being destroyed and families are divided. According to War Child UK right now there are 30 million children who have been forced to leave their homes or families because of war. However, this is not a myth and not all these people can find new homes. Juxtaposed with Henry Fuseli’s ‘Achilles and Patroclus’ we hear the voice of a Northern Irish soldier, who also lost his best friend in conflict. He speaks of the intoxicating power of survivor’s guilt and the pain of losing someone you love. For me, this was the most moving part of the exhibition; the anguish of Achilles’ contorted body suddenly a vehicle of vivid insight into an ongoing almost unendurable pain that claims many lives today. Through this curation, the story of Troy trickles down through a strand of three interpretations. Each one more powerful than the last.
Elsewhere the figure of Helen, a source of curiosity and artistic inspiration often seen through the male gaze, encourages us to consider the war of women. In the 1970s, feminist activists rejected the use of the term ‘history’ to point to the fact that what we understand as history today has come from a male perspective. They replaced the male ‘his’ with ‘herstory’, encouraging society to think about this word and its meaning through a new critical lens. The Trojan war itself is beginning to be reconsidered through a new female-orientated lens today through novels such as‘Silence of the Girls’ by Pat Barker.
The Greek myths seem to prove that the best stories are the ones that travel, across time, geography, and gender. In the context of the British Museum we must of course consider, who these stories belong to and where the myths call home. The Greek myths do not belong to Britain, and one can’t help but wonder when exactly the Parthenon will be returned, another chapter in the history of the institution and these mythic marbles.
(1) Coming in 2020