At the weekend, I dropped into the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery – partly as a fairly safe bet on somewhere to stay dry, partly because I wanted to see the Staffordshire Hoard before it gets moved, and partly because I hadn’t been in yet and it seemed rather sad not to have popped my head in at some point during my time here. Which, incidentally, was a great pleasure, not least because they have one of the copies of Rossetti’s Persephone and Sandys’ absolutely amazing Medea (on the left), both of which are beautiful pieces of pre-Raphaelite classical reception, and which are going to get at least one more visit before I decamp. Especially the Sandys, which, incidentally, was considered an affront to public taste when it was first painted. (Classical myth continues to provide contraversial material for artistic minds to turn their hands to, as the recent furore over Derrick Santini’s Leda and the Swan photo demonstrates – do be aware that the link may not be safe for work!)
Anyway, at the back of the museum there is an all-purpose ‘ancient stuff’ room that puts Greece, Rome, Mesopotamia, ancient Crete, the Holy Land and various other old things on show (Egypt has its own room), and I thought I’d have a nose around from professional curiosity. The first thing I had to keep in mind was the audience of the objects – the good people of Birmingham, not the classical scholar. That said, I did find the labels rather frustrating, in that they didn’t include information like provenance or find site. This was particularly irritating for a group of small statues that used Hercules iconography (lion skin, raised arm with hand holding club) but in rather cruder workmanship than I’ve seen use that iconography before, making me wonder about where in the empire these things had been made and what sort of context they’d been used in, especially since the label referred to the Roman practice of assimilating local gods to Hercules in northern Europe.
But the lack of labels did give me an amusing surprise. One of the cases had a series of rather nice clay lamps on show, in three groups from the first/second century A.D., the third/fourth centuries and the fifth/sixth centuries, to show the change in design and shape over time. I cast my eye over these quite quickly at first, but after a circuit of the gallery came back to have another look. Where, to my surprise, among the representations of gladiators, lions and locusts, I found an oil lamp decorated with a copulating couple. Now, this in and of itself is hardly a unique object; lamps were frequently decorated with saucy pictures of one variety or another, and regular readers may recall that the ‘sex room’ in the Times Square Pompeii exhibit made something of a feature of four poorly preserved examples. But I will admit to being a little startled when I realised what I was looking at, as this particular piece of household erotica was quietly hiding in the middle of an otherwise entirely decorous display. I suppose that in and of itself might be a case for not overlabelling things – there’s an extra bonus for those who make the effort to look carefully.