Six Grecian treasures join Walters exhibit

Art museum highlighting heroes and myths of ancient Greece
Four slabs of marble and two clay vases bound for Baltimore received exit visas issued by the Hellenic minister of culture himself. They were driven to the airport in Athens, Greece, in a truck with a suspension so steady that a plastic cup of water didn’t spill a drop. And the van received a police escort, just to make sure that nothing untoward occurred.
None of that stopped Eleni Vlachogianni’s pulse from pounding on the recent day when she unlocked the cases in which the treasures were enclosed. The six pieces are among the showstoppers of “Heroes: Mortals and Myths in Ancient Greece,” the big fall exhibit at the Walters Art Museum opening today. Vlachogianni and Petros Kaisar, curators of sculpture at the National Archeological Museum in Athens, were responsible for the care of the artifacts.
The wrappings were slowly and painstakingly removed from a 20-inch square of yellowing marble from the fourth century B.C. The piece depicts Hercules standing before a temple, holding his club and his lion-skin cloak. The expression on the strong man’s face is of pleasure and amusement as he accepts the offering of an ox and a sheep from a devoted admirer.
At least that was the scene the curators hoped to find when the engraving was removed from its its acid-free paper and swaddling of bubble wrap guaranteed to emit no harmful vapors.
“Marble can crack in different climates, and Baltimore is very humid,” Vlachogianni says. “If you’re not careful, when you open up the case, you’ll find a broken piece.”
The right third of the sculpture has been reconstructed with plaster, and she and Kaisar examined not just the original carving, but the long, triangular line where the pieces are joined.
“It was OK,” Vlachogianni says later, looking a bit like a triumphant warrior herself. “It was a big relief. Now I can sleep.”
The sculptures and vases from the Athens museum are just six of the 112 objects in the exhibit, but bringing them to Baltimore was a coup that took two years and the best efforts of more than a dozen scholars from around the world.
“These are some of the most important pieces in the show, and they’re not lent out very often,” says Regine Schulz, the Walters’ curator of ancient art.
“We originally had requested about 15 artifacts from the National Archaeological Museum, and we knew that some of them were totally out of reach. To get permission to borrow and exhibit these six is more than we’d ever hoped.”
Those 114 objects include statues, marble reliefs, bronzes, ceramic vases and jewelry. About half have been borrowed from American and European museums, while the remaining objects are from the Walters’ collection. After leaving Baltimore in January, the show will travel to Nashville, Tenn., San Diego and New York.
As its title implies, the exhibit examines the lives of four heroes: the cunning Odysseus; the valiant Achilles; Hercules, who had superhuman strength; and Helen of Troy, whose beauty launched a thousand warships. Visitors to the exhibition can take a quiz linking their character traits to those of eight heroes, gods and monsters, and then follow “their” character throughout the exhibition.
The Walters also will pay tribute to modern-day heroes by hosting two related shows. The first, which runs through Nov. 8, celebrates 12 Baltimore schoolteachers and administrators who, like Helen of Troy, have had a life-altering impact on others. The second exhibit opens Nov. 11 and features artwork created by immigrants, homeless people and refugees who, like Odysseus, have spent much of their adult lives wandering the world.
While it would never occur to Schulz, Vlachogianni and Kaisar to describe themselves as heroic, the process of getting those six artifacts to Baltimore was the equivalent of at least five of the 12 labors of Hercules.
As Vlachogianni explains it, there’s a list of treasures so essential to the Greek culture, so much a part of the national identity, they are never allowed to leave the country. (Think of them as their equivalent of the Liberty Bell or the Declaration of Independence.)
For the rest, there is a daunting list of criteria that must be met before an object is approved for a loan. Does the borrowing museum have a top-of-the-line security system, sufficient insurance and a reputation for displaying objects in a tasteful manner? Is the object too fragile to be transported? Is it too large or too heavy to fit in the storage compartment of a transcontinental jet?
Yes, priceless museum artifacts travel on commercial planes alongside your battered Samsonite. But the museum crates are secured in iron frames designed to keep them from being jostled by sliding suitcases. And while frequent fliers might suspect that their luggage occasionally has been drop-kicked to the tarmac by overworked baggage handlers, Vlachogianni and Kaisar watch the crates being loaded and unloaded from the aircraft to ensure that doesn’t happen – at least not to a national treasure.
Of course, not all accidents can be anticipated, so there’s a rule that no more than 10 objects can be shipped on the same flight. A museum borrowing 40 pieces must spring for four different planes and for a pair of couriers to ride on each.
“That way if the plane crashes, the museum wouldn’t lose more than 10 pieces,” Vlachogianni says.
Once the crates arrive at their destination, they rest for 24 hours to acclimate to the change in climate. Then the work of unwrapping begins, and the museum had better have a plentiful supply of Dumpsters on hand.
For instance, a 7-inch-tall ceramic vase dating from 470 B.C. shows a member of Odysseus’ crew being turned into a pig by the sorceress Circe after a banquet. (Presumably, he had bad table manners.) That vase, which is about the size of an adult woman’s hand, was surrounded by 2 feet of packaging on each side before it was deemed secure enough to be put into a crate.
“The rule of thumb,” Schulz says, “is that you should allow half of a day to pack each artifact.”
The entire process will be repeated four more times by the curators from Athens before the collection makes it back to the Archeological Museum in January 2011. That can all seem like a lot of time, money and trouble on behalf of a few inanimate objects. But Schulz and Vlachogianni and Kaisar think it’s worth it, if not because of the artifacts themselves, but because of what they have to say to us.
“Greece’s heroes had their good side, but they also faced challenges and some of them did horrible things,” Schulz says.
“Helen started a war. Hercules killed his wife and children. Today, we’d say, ‘Oh, they aren’t heroes at all.’
“But the Greeks didn’t turn against Hercules and Helen because they weren’t perfect. They gave them a chance to learn from their mistakes and overcome them. Maybe this exhibit will get people to rethink their standards for contemporary heroes.”
If you go
“Heroes” opens today and runs through Jan. 3. at the Walters Art Museum, 600 N. Charles St. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays- Sundays. Free. Call 410-547-9000 or go to thewalters.org.
(source: The Baltimore Sun)