TROY ON DISPLAY: Scepticism and Wonder at Schliemann’s First Exhibition

Abigail Baker

Bloomsbury Academic h/b (2019) 263pp £85 (ISBN 9781788313582)

This book is an account of the exhibition that in 1877 Schliemann organised at the South Kensington Museum in London (now the V&A) to persuade both scholars and the general public that his attribution of Hisarlik as the site of Troy was genuine. (He had first exhibited his finds privately to those who visited his house in Athens.) 

The exhibits were located in the recently opened South Court of the museum. There were three cases of introductory material. One contained a large and dramatic terracotta vase. Next were cases of small finds, then more large vases. One case contained a circular shield, with a section curled over. The centre-piece was ‘Priam’s Treasure’, displayed in two adjoining cases. Schliemann skilfully avoided the problem of dates and chronology by noting the depth at which item was found. He appended photographs of the excavation and detailed descriptions of items, all of which gave an impression of scientific rigour. The diadem was labelled ‘Head Dress, ‘Plekté Anadasme’ gold. Sixty-one chains, with idol-shaped pendants. Found at the depth of 28 feet. The Trojan treasure.’ There were doubts about the authenticity of the treasure and Schliemann acknowledged these. The Times complimented him for this approach and for not putting too much of his own interpretation into the cases.

The exhibition was a sensation. It attracted huge crowds, including royalty and many celebrities. It was also a fashionable place to meet people and be seen. The illustrator E. Gertrude Thomson arranged to meet Lewis Carroll for the first time at the Trojan Exhibition and worried whether she would find him in the crowds. Amongst scholars the exhibition triggered much discussion about the significance of the finds and, inevitably, about that old chestnut—whether the Trojan War happened at all. There was also debate about whether Schliemann was a fraud and how much credence should be given to his account of the excavations. 

This debate was not confined to the academic community. Because of Homer’s place in élite education, the establishment included many classical scholars. The statesman Gladstone was convinced that Hisarlik was the site of Homer’s Troy. He weighed into the debate on Schliemann’s side, publicly challenging the scepticism of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, the Poet Laureate. Such scholarly issues seldom trouble modern politicians.

After three years the South Kensington Museum could no longer accommodate the Trojan material. Schliemann transferred his exhibits to their permanent home, the Royal Museum in Berlin. But the impact of the London exhibition was long lasting. First, as the author demonstrates, that exhibition was a pioneering exercise. It showed that a museum can do more than just house a collection of antiquities. The arrangement and presentation of exhibits may be used to present an argument or one point of view about a contentious issue. As the author puts it, ‘museums can play a hegemonic role’. Many subsequent exhibitions have had a similar function. Secondly, by providing new material, Schliemann’s Trojan display re-awakened debate about the wider implications of the Trojan War. Ancient writers saw this event as marking the boundary between mythology and history. Victorian commentators integrated Homer and archaeology into current debates about the relationship between Europe and Asia. That raised the question whether the Trojans were fundamentally Greek (Gladstone’s view) or Asiatic. The author discusses these issues in chapter 11, ‘Who were the Trojans?’

This handy little book, which can be read in one sitting, is a gold-mine of fascinating information. It also sets any reader (this reviewer included) thinking about the wider questions. The book is also highly topical, in view of the Troy Exhibition at the British Museum (running from 21 November 2019 to 8 March 2020). The songs of Homer are, of course, at the root of all classical literature. I warmly recommend this book to everyone with an interest in that literature.

Rupert Jackson

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