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From Heracles to Alexander exhibition poster Ashmolean MuseumIn July of this year, I managed to catch the tail end of the Heracles exhibition at the Ashmolean.

The full title of this exhibition was “From Heracles to Alexander: Treasures from the Royal Capital of Macedon, a Hellenic Kingdom in the Age of Democracy”. The key word here is “treasures” – it’s no accident that the star exhibit was a wreath of myrtle leaves executed in gold – a thing of extraordinary delicacy and breathtaking beauty. The fact is, that this was about power, image, conspicuous wealth and bling (albeit ancient royal bling).

Everyone associated with the exhibition was telling a story. We were told that the long dead royal house of Macedon was descended from gods. We were shown gold jewellery, silver banqueting vessels, lifelike statuary and tiny, beautifully executed, cosmetic jars: all testifying to the wealth and sophistication of the Macedonian court.

The artefacts were arranged in themed groups, including a group of exhibits associated with women, which allowed the exhibitors to revise history and balance the patriarchal stories of heroes, hunters and warriors with those of queens, princesses and priestesses.

So what was missing? Conspicuous by their absence were the anonymous craftsmen who put as much skill into making a bronze arrow head as a silver perfume jar. Who was the stonemason who made the leap from carving symbolic heads of mythical gods to realistic portraits of men and women? What tools did they use? Where did the raw materials come from? What technologies allowed them to extract iron or manufacture bronze?

And why does a financially and morally bankrupt Greek government (the exhibition’s sponsor) prefer to be associated with a golden age of inherited wealth and power, when it could so easily point to an age of skill, creativity and innovation?

Links :  Ashmolean Museum  Heracles exhibition official page   Greek Ministry of Culture