A Classical Pursuit: Ancient Greek pottery exhibit attracts scholars and showcases art of the time period


The idea to create an exhibit on ancient Greek art at the Muscarelle Museum of Art at the College of William and Mary was first proposed nearly thirty years ago by professor of classical studies John Oakley.  This idea has finally come to fruition in the exhibit entitled “Athenian Potters and Painters: Greek Vases from Virginia Collections” that can now be viewed in the museum until Oct. 7.

The opening of the exhibit was a victory for Oakley, who spent years unsuccessfully proposing the idea to numerous museum directors and, at one point applied for grants to put on such a show.

“Any of these kinds of exhibits can cost money, and it is really easy to say, ‘We don’t have the money for it’, but there are grants for those kinds of things,” Oakley said. “It’s just really nice to have the actual exhibit here at the College with the conference also being held here this September.”

The conference is the third of its kind planned by Oakley. The previous two conferences were held in Athens and also featured vases geared toward stimulating scholarly discussion. In the upcoming conference, classical archaeologists with varying specializations and levels of experience will come together for a few days to listen to professional papers and discuss Greek and Athenian pottery and art in great detail.

Not only are the proceedings of each conference published as a reference work for scholars, but the conference can also be a valuable experience for younger scholars, who are given the opportunity to present their papers to an audience and meet and learn from other scholars.

There was a lot of work and collaboration involved in putting Oakley’s plan into motion, especially by his students and the help and support of Director Aaron De Groft ’88.

“He [Oakley] had actually proposed the idea to me in Chick-Fil-A after he had just gotten back from a stint away in Greece. He said, ‘How about that show I mentioned?’ and I said, ‘Let’s do it!’” De Groft said. “So we worked on it and involved the students to give them meaningful and engaging real-world experience to take with them into the future.”

The Muscarelle prides itself on collaborating with faculty and including students in various aspects of its ventures. De Groft has made it clear that the museum is just a continuation of the mission of the College and that there will always be room to push the boundaries and create diverse exhibits while also serving the faculty members in their endeavors and the students in their learning.

“I have found that throwing the doors open to our closest constituents, our students and faculty, that we have a lot more interest with the public and student body,” De Groft said. “Collaboration with faculty and students is the definition of our existence as a university art museum. We are really a lab for experimental learning and an important part of university life.”

Oakley spent several years living in Greece, where he encountered other pottery enthusiasts and developed a great repertoire of sources in Virginia whom he could contact for the exhibit. He also teaches classes that center particularly around the analysis of ancient Grecian art and pottery, so his investment in the exhibit is more personal than that of an objective art scholar.

“It is important to draw attention to Greek and Roman art because it is the beginning and cornerstone of western art. The major part of knowledge we have comes from the statuary and vases discovered in Greece and Italy because murals and wall paintings have been destroyed over time,” Oakley said. “Vases are really our main source for studying ancient Greek painting.”

Many students were highly involved in many parts of the process — writing labels for the individual vases, writing wall labels for the different sections of vases, and helping to plan the layout of the exhibit. One student in particular, Alex Endres ’12, became an integral part of the process and was named co-curator for the exhibit.

Professor Oakley was away for part of the summer, so Endres was in charge of compiling a list of the pieces in the collection.  She also wrote and edited labels and worked with two lead docents on the research for presentation during tours.

“I love the stories that Greek vases tell — often times, they are our only sources for certain versions of mythological stories, whose literary sources have since been lost,” Endres said.

The exhibit, set up in a chronological format to showcase the evolution of the art, illustrates Athenian art and pottery in their truest forms. Although the colors are characteristically simple, the technique used is considered impeccable, and the figures are very realistic for the time period. This exhibit attests not only to the work of the people involved in its creation, but also to the artistry that existed during the height of Grecian society.

“Being a member of the alumni and working here at the museum, collaboration on projects like this is even more gratifying to me because your heart is more in the game,” De Groft said. “This all [the exhibit and the conference] just came together in the best way and is producing an excellent experience for the students.”


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