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“Gods, Myths and Mortals: Discover Ancient Greece” is a 4,000 square foot exhibition that just opened The Children’s Museum of Manhattan. It will continue through December 2008.
The show presents an odyssey that is physical, historical, cultural and technological. And it IS the Odyssey — Homer’s “Odyssey” –with a section that lets your child navigate a virtual ship on a floor-to-ceiling screen through a hailstorm of boulders, or walk a curving balance beam between Scylla and Charybdis, and negotiate through other challenges as she or he journeys home to Ithaca!
Andrew Ackerman, the museum’s executive director, says, “It’s our first major exhibition about antiquity, and the first time we’ve displayed ancient archeological artifacts.” Among other things, there will be ancient coins, and a 6th-century amphora .
The museum has collaborated with five universities, the Greek government, the History Channel (which produced three videos), and a panel of about 15 scholars. There was extensive research with 8- to 11-year-olds.
This show is opening only a month after the newly renovated Greek and Roman galleries just across Central Park (at the Metroplitan Museum). The timing was not planned, but the museum feels that this experience will provide a context to make visits to the Met more understandable. One child in the research group had asked, “Didn’t the Greeks do anything but make statues?”
“Our goal was not to separate art from history from science from philosophy,” said Mr Ackerman. “Traditionally, when you go to an art museum, you only see art. At a history museum, only history. But in ancient Greece, it was all of a piece. We wanted that holistic experience.”
There are four sections, which focus on two main periods: the late Bronze Age (about 1500 to 1200 BC) and the Classical Period (about 480-323 BC). The first area, “The Gods of Olympus”, includes a video introduction to Greek culture, narrated by Zeus, Poseidon and Athena.
There are also digital quizzes about the gods, and a chance to play 20 questions with Aristotle, a talking bust.
In the second section, “Growing Up Greek”, household life is introduced, as well as the gymnasium or school; there are stations that explain the importance of weaving (and a loom to try). Greek emphasis on physical fitness is shown, and you can arm-wrestle with a mechanical hand.
“The Odyssey” begins with a huge Trojan horse, whose multi-level interior is open for climbing. As your child journeys, he will visit the cave of Polyphemus (the Cyclops) and animatronic sheep will bleat when he crawls beneath them, as Odysseus did, to escape.
Some of the experiences come in digital form: a game that presents situations from the Odyssey and asks players to choose among strategies (the game then gives feedback). Megan Cifarelli, assistant professor of art history at Manhattanville College and the exhibition’s curator, says “It’s the ideal of the examined life. We want them to reflect on their decisions.”
In the last section, “Discovering Greece”, there are models and digitized explorations of Greek science and architecture; a display links Greek forms to contemporary buildings (the White House), Greek discoveries to modern research, and ancient Greek language to English words.
Dr Cifarelli stressed the insistence on authenticity. The Greek government provided replicas of objects; the museum contracted for a model of the reconstructed Antiythera Mechanism, the geared navigational device from 150 to 100 BC, which has been nicknamed the world’s first computer.
“Something that bothers me in children’s illustrations of the ancient world is that, to make them appealing, they feel they have to make them not Greek,” said Dr Cifarelli. Every image here is actually based on, or inspired by an ancient artwork.
The museum faced some thorny questions: whether to water down the truth about Greek life. They ultimately favored realism: no fig leaves on illustrations of male athletes; it is clear that Greek households had slaves; warfare is (bloodlessly) addressed.
“The history of humanity is the history of conflict,” Dr Cifarelli said. “And we didn’t want to pretend that it was great to be a woman in 5th-century BC Athens.” Children learn that girls were not allowed an education, and were confined to the home until they married at thirteen.
There are some comic elements. Lead bullets (shot from sling-shot devices) , it is explained, were often inscribed with the ancient equivalent of the word “Ow!” There is a karaoke machine, and children can pretend to sing with the Sirens: familiar pop with mischievous new lyrics. Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” becomes “He Will Survive” — Odysseus, that is. He should have run into those rocks — He should have slipped into that sea — If we’d known he’d make it this far — We’d have tried to sing on key…
Lucky the child – and the adult – who gets to experience this show.
“Gods, Greeks and Mortals” runs through December 2008 at the Children’s Museum of Manhattan, at the Tisch Building, 212 West 83rd St; 212-721-1223. Then it goes on a national tour, beginning in Chicago. My sole source is an article by Laurel Graeber in the NY Times on 5/23/07.
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