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Ancient Mediterranean Cultures in Contact at Field Museum A Thoughtful, Timely Treasure

The Field Museum debuts a new exhibit this Friday, dealing with cultural crossover.

The Field Museum‘s had a busy year. Leading off in March, they brought visitors behind the scenes to the work scientists, curators and creatives do every day to put out world-class exhibits and advance important scientific research with their Specimens exhibit. Then in May, massive tents were erected to house the blockbuster-meets-science exhibit that was Jurassic World. Now, as we head into mid-October, they’re taking a look at the impact of cultural interaction with Ancient Mediterranean Cultures in Contact.  

An Etruscan Cinerary urn base. Photo by Marielle Shaw.

While the title of this exhibit, which opens Friday, lends itself more to a lecture than an exciting new must-see for the Field, it’s a showstopper. One of the hallmarks of the best Field Museum exhibits has been their boldness in presenting relevant, sometimes boundary-pushing, always science forward subject matter. Ancient Mediterranean Cultures in Contact is everything we want in a museum exhibit; you’ll absolutely learn new things about ancient cultures, but you’ll also come away thinking about what the current implications of that knowledge are.  

Media clips are your entryway to a thought provoking exhibit. Photo by Marielle Shaw.

It’s no secret that this exhibit is meant to focus visitors’ eyes on current global issues. The very first thing you’ll encounter in this exhibit is a double sided glass screen with global news stories running in a loop- from contested islands in the Philippines to avocado crop issues that affect us in the US and everything in between. Immediately the point is made clear – in fact, it’s written on the wall. “When societies interact, things move, people move, and ideas move…the movement of things, people and ideas across cultures isn’t new- this has been going on since the beginning of human history.” 

A beautiful wine pitcher from 1st Century AD Italy. Photo by Marielle Shaw.

Cultures in Contact explores the relationship of the Egyptians, Romans, Etruscans and Greeks from 500 BC to 500 AD and uses it as a lens to focus the minds of its visitors on how global culture impacts us here in the US and, conversely, how we affect other cultures. The Field Museum has put forth some truly beautiful artifacts in this exhibit, from mummies and funerary urns to gorgeous glasswork and tubs that survived the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. This particular exhibit almost entirely features the Field Museum’s own collections, with a few pieces coming from other institutions in Chicago. 

Photo by Marielle Shaw.

It’s a point of pride for Curator and phD Bill Parkinson. “One thing I love about this show is that it’s almost all our stuff. There’s a couple of objects from the Oriental Institute and the Art Institute, but 98% of it is from here.” He gestures towards a large bronze bathtub awash in a green patina, once pulled from the ashes of Pompeii after Mt. Vesuvius’ eruption. “I’ve been wanting to bring that up here for the last ten years.” 

Artifacts from Pompeii at the Field Museum. Photo by Marielle Shaw.

“It’s hard to beat the bathtub,” Parkinson says with a chuckle.  “People from Pompeii will come and they’ll say ‘I just can’t believe you’ve got this, and it’s so well-preserved.’ We’ve got a bathtub that was basically covered in the eruption from Vesuvius and a fresco probably from a dining area also buried in the eruption of Vesuvius, and here what we do is we spin it, so rather than talking about the elite and the royalty, the people who would have owned this, we talk about the slaves that would have been filling the bathtub. And many of those slaves were foreigners, right? They were brought from the far reaches of the Roman Empire. I feel like there’s a relevance to this exhibition that I’m very proud of.”  

A string diagram built at the Field Museum shows how cultures currently collide every day. Photo by Marielle Shaw.

This is a conscious intention that went into the building of Ancient Mediterranean Cultures in Contact– to make a statement about cultural contact- that it is both a good thing and a hard thing. “It’s a thing people do, continues Parkinson. “It’s not new. It’s something that ends in very different ways. Sometimes people end up conquering other people. Other times, people take wonderful traditions and blend them with their own. [Cultural contact] is not a new game. This is an old game and we should be comfortable with it.”  

Ancient Mediterranean Cultures in Contact at the Field Museum. Photo by Marielle Shaw.

“What’s special to me is that this exhibit demonstrates why all this stuff is relevant. People always think of archaeology as sort of an esoteric, interesting but kind of irrelevant discipline, but you know, I think with this exhibition we’re really hitting home with how we can look at the past and it can make us think about what’s going on in the world today. This is why we start with the media installation in the beginning. Most people coming in to an exhibition on the Ancient Mediterranean aren’t going to expect news clips at the beginning and a life jacket from Chios at the end, but I feel like if we can make people see that what’s going on in the world today has actually been going on for quite some time, and people have wrestled with a lot of the same issues of cultural contact over time and actually we’re pretty good at it, we kind of been doing this for a while -and humans are actually very good at adapting…any time that we can make ourselves a little bit more thoughtful about what’s going on in the world, then we’re doing a good job as a museum.” 

Ancient Mediterranean Cultures in Contact. Photo by Marielle Shaw.

 It’s exactly this touch that makes this a blockbuster in my book. The artifacts are impressive- from the tub Parkinson mentioned to the beautiful jewelry styled by one culture and integrated to the next. The stories are fantastic, too- one tablet portrays a pharaoh that wasn’t actually a pharaoh, instead a conqueror who wanted to interject himself into the culture, as well as the spread of religions, from Egyptian gods then worshipped by Greeks, and Christian symbolism as it spread across cultures.  

Bill Parkinson, who we talked to for this article, in a video clip that is part of the exhibit. Photo by Marielle Shaw.

It’s easy to see the things that were adopted by each culture and then spread across regions and through time, but interesting to see how that continues today. And Ancient Mediterranean Cultures in Contact ends just as poignantly as it begins, with another challenge to think of the ways ideas, objects and people move through our world. It reminds me of the final image in the Tattoo exhibit, another Field Museum must-see, which featured a Holocaust survivor with the tattoo she didn’t choose, embracing her grandson, who’d chosen to ink those same numbers into his own skin. It’s simple, and easy to miss but arresting in the same way.  

Ancient Mediterranean Cultures in Contact at the Field Museum. Photo by Marielle Shaw.

As you round the final corner, and pass by an iPhone with an attached Square slider, a copy of the Quran translated into English, and a resin cast Jesus figure, you come to another case, which holds a neon orange, child-sized life vest, found near the island of Chios in 2015, where more than a million refugees fled from their war-torn homes in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan by crossing the Mediterranean to get into Europe. Many did not survive.  

A reclining woman adorns this Etruscan sarcophagus lid. Field Museum. Photo by Marielle Shaw.

What you’ll find when you explore Ancient Mediterranean Cultures in Contact is more than you bargained for. It’s the best of what the Field Museum has to offer and a collaboration between experts in all sorts of things, from Egyptology and Coptic textiles to Etruscan scholars, put together not only to help you learn about the cultures of the past and how they interacted – something not so often in the spotlight – but to paint a bigger picture that you as a visitor are a part of.  It’s meant to be challenging, and meant to get people thinking. “What I want people to get out of it,” says Parkinson, “is to get people thinking more broadly about what happens when cultures come in contact.”  

It’s exactly what has been accomplished, and a good reason to take the time out to see this exhibit. Ancient Mediterranean Cultures in Contact opens Friday, October 20th, and requires a special ticket for entry. The exhibit is slated to run through April 29, 2018. For more information, or to get a ticket, visit this link. 

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