Review: ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’, British Museum Exhibition

I was lucky enough to be able to catch the British Museum’s ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’ exhibition this month, which only has another few weeks left on display before the exhibition will close. For anyone interested in ancient objects, problematic archaeology, and the modern reception of a classical tale, I really recommend this exhibition!

Having studied Classics, I was already familiar with both the key ancient Greek and Roman sources that tell the famous story of the fall of Troy, and the subsequent depictions of the tale through modern paintings and sculpture. Prior knowledge doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of the exhibition at all, but it certainly allows you to better appreciate the chosen layout of the exhibition. Like the classical sources of Homer and Virgil, the narrative of the exhibition doesn’t provide a linear version of events. Instead, it takes you through important visual representations of the legend and contrasts them with other surviving versions; for instance, the exhibition repeatedly questions the position of the famous Greek Helen – was she a ‘pawn’ of the gods, a willing partner of the Trojan prince Paris, or was she abducted against her will? By posing such unknowable questions through the objects, immediately the title of ‘myth and reality’ becomes clear – they are indistinguishable, as the sources themselves convey.

An Etruscan funerary urn which shows an ‘unwilling’ Helen being pushed on board the ship that will depart for Troy.

The particular focus on the female experience of the war was notable, from the ancient visual representations of Helen to the retellings of the tragic fate of the Trojan women in the Greek dramas of Euripides, the work of Shakespeare, and nowadays in modern cinema and theatre productions. A really striking comparison was emphasised through a screening of Syrian female refugees performing the ancient plays – a sad reminder that the consequences of warfare are not blurred myths of the past, but indeed very much the reality for many in today’s society.

Contrasted with the female focus was the exploration of the character of Achilles, from ferocious warrior with divine relations to tragic victim. A prevailing theme within Homer’s Iliad is the ‘wrath’ of Achilles, which ultimately has fatal consequences for several figures within the Trojan war legend. Iconic representations of the complexity of Achilles includes this black-figure vase, which depicts the moment he kills the Amazon queen (and at once falls in love with her).

Black figure vase depicting the warrior Achilles as he kills the Amazon queen Penthesilea, fighting on the Trojan side, c. 530BC.

The wider context and setting of the Trojan city is also explored via valuable explorations of the work of Heinrich Schliemann, the German archaeologist who claimed to have discovered the city of Troy and ‘Priam’s treasure’. The exhibition draws attention to several questionable aspects of his work, and provides a refreshing reflection on the nature of 19th century archaeological practices. Many may think of the famous ‘Mask of Agamemnon’ (sadly not part of the display) at this point, and draw comparisons with the earliest excavations of other ancient cultures and the nature of how modern archaeology and conservation has advanced.

A number of useful resources are available on the British Museum website to accompany the physical display, from blogs focusing on certain key figures within the legend such as Achilles and Helen to further discussion of the ‘Hollywood treatment’ of the Trojan war story (all of these can be found online: https://www.britishmuseum.org/exhibitions/troy-myth-and-reality)

Though it’s more likely to be a more rewarding experience if you have some knowledge of the story already, the exhibition is definitely worth seeing. Further associated events that may also be of interest include the upcoming evening lecture ‘Great Women of the Classical World‘, taking place on 6th March 2020, which aims to tell the stories of various female figures within the legend.