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Exhibiting Democracy


Exhibiting Democracy: Material Culture from Ancient Athens and the Democratic Ideal

2,500 Years: Blockbuster Exhibition - The Context

Museum Heritage Debates

Democracy Celebrated and Debated

Two Exhibitions:

The Art Blockbuster: The Greek Miracle.

Archaeology and Text: An Exhibition Celebrating the 2500th Anniversary of Democracy


Exhibiting Democracy: Critical Conclusions


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2,500 Years: Blockbuster Exhibition - The Context

One of the main developments in museums between 1970 and 1992, the year in which The Greek Miracle exhibition opened, was the emergence of the blockbuster exhibition especially in the United States and to open with international collaboration. The blockbuster has continued in popularity with both museum directors and the public, with most major museum institutions in the western world presenting a programme of exhibitions themed around a well known artist or historical epoch. At the same time, museums and exhibitions have become an increased object of study and analysis in academia. The emergence of blockbuster exhibitions and museum studies in roughly the same period is not coincidental. The increase in public interest in and attendance at museums and exhibitions (if only among certain social classes and groups of people) has led to greater analysis of the ‘exhibitionary complex' of displaying objects and ‘civilizing rituals' of museum visiting in historical and contemporary periods. [2] The critiquing and dissection of the museum gaze is inevitable when institutions grow in public importance and power. Some analysis of The Greek Miracle exhibition and museum studies is in the ‘Critical Conclusions ' section, but more attention needs to be paid to the importance of the art blockbuster before 1992 to place it in a better cultural context.

The Director of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, Earl. A. Powell III, wrote the foreword to The Greek Miracle exhibition catalogue with the Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Philippe de Montebello. The exhibition had actually been backed and negotiations for it conducted by Powell's predecessor J. Carter Brown, who retired shortly before it opened. Carter Brown (1934-2002) had worked at the National Gallery of Art since 1961 and became one of the youngest museum directors in the world when he was appointed in 1969. He transformed the National Gallery from a fairly low key arts museum into a major international institution through major acquisitions, increased annual government funding (from $3.1 million to $52.3 million) and oversaw the construction and opening of the East Building, which was one of the most influential museum buildings to be commissioned in the world (Kimmelman 2002). Carter Brown set himself the task of bringing more people into the National Gallery and one of the ways he did this was by mounting ‘headline grabbing' exhibitions designed by ‘interior designers to display and light the exhibits to their best advantage'. [3] One of the first was ‘Treasures of Tutankhamen', which he brought from the British Museum in 1976-77. This was followed by ‘Rodin Rediscovered' in 1981, which attracted one million visitors and ‘Treasure Houses of Britain' in 1985-86, which attracted almost one million visitors in the six months it was on, with nine million visitors to the gallery in the same year. Carter Brown also believed in ‘using all available methods – taped lectures, filmsslides, handouts and live performance – to draw people into museum.' [4] Carter Brown was not without his critics and was accused of being unscholarly, though he studied art at New York, the Hague and the Louvre as well as with Bernard Berenson in Florence. He saw himself as popularising art for a broad audience.

Carter Brown was known for being able to persuade donors to commit money, politicians to give support and international diplomats and curators to loan works of art. One of the most important acts Carter Brown managed to push through was persuading Congress to indemnify art on loan from abroad, which basically meant that art was insured in US museums without having to use prohibitively expensive private insurance. This meant that blockbuster exhibitions were enabled throughout America and without this measure The Greek Miracle could not have taken place.

The Greek Miracle. Classical Sculpture from the Dawn of Democracy. The Fifth Century BC

This exhibition picked up the chronological story of Greek art from where an earlier exhibition The Human Figure in Early Greek Art finished. There is in fact a substantial overlap as The Human Figure appears to finish in c. 470-460 BCE and The Greek Miracle begins at c. 510 BCE. The 1988 exhibition The Human Figure in Early Greek Art toured several venues across the United States. After beginning in January 1988 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, it went to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City Missouri, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago and finished at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston in 1989 (last day 3 September 1989). The exhibition included 67 marble sculptures, bronzes, painted vases and terracotta figures from the Geometric period to the Early Classical period of Greece (10thC–5thC BCE) and, at its Washington location, attracted 259,318 visitors over 111 days. The exhibition was supported by a variety of funders (for example the Paradina Inc. Trust) as well as an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and Humanities.

There were a number of similarities between this earlier exhibition and The Greek Miracle. The Human Figure in Early Greek Art was a high profile exhibition made up of loans from Greek museums and involved politicians and diplomats as well as museum professionals. The exhibition was opened by the former actress and Minister of Culture of Greece, Melina Mercouri. Mercouri, an outspoken critic of the retention of the ‘Elgin Collection' by the British Museum, also wrote the preface for the catalogue. A team of people from Greece and the United States were involved in organising the exhibition – the ‘Organizing Committee' consisted of Greek archaeologists and museum directors while the ‘Committee of Honour' was made up principally of influential Greek-Americans and Greeks with considerable influence in the US, such as the Head of the Greek Orthodox Church of North and South America Archbishop Iakovos, as well as the National Gallery Trustee Paul Mellon (Sweeney, Curry and Tzedakis (eds), 1988:12-13). The exhibition itself was derived from an earlier exhibition held in Florence in 1986 ‘From Myth to Logos'. The dramatic quality of the display, lighting and presentation of the objects was commented on but, as with The Greek Miracle, one reviewer from the New York Times thought the show was not academically adventurous enough:

The show is not adventurous. The catalogue includes informative essays by Theodora Karaghiorga on ‘Bronzes' and Evelyn Harrison on ‘Sculpture in Stone', but there are statements in other essays that read like excerpts from press releases by the Greek tourist bureau. There could have been at least a hint of new directions in classical scholarship. It is not a question of capitulating to fashion. Only museums can provide a forum in which new ideas can be tested against the art that inspired them. (Brenson, New York Times, 14 February 1988)

The Greek Miracle also attracted criticism for, at best, its traditional approach to Greek art and, at worst, its deliberate eschewing of contemporary scholarship around Greek art and society. The exhibition was, however, successful with the public and attracted an average of 2,500 people a day while it was on display at Washington DC.

On the surface there appear to be considerable similarities between the two exhibitions: international loans from Greece to America, a huge organising committee comprising politicians and other public figures as well as curators, and a traditional approach to the history of Greek art. There were, however, notable differences between The Human Figure and The Greek Miracle. The earlier exhibition was much bigger – 67 objects as opposed to 34 (at least at the National Gallery of Art). It toured more venues across the United States and all the loans came from museums in Greece. The Human Figure did not commemorate any particular anniversary and emphasis was on the objects displayed and their development in art historical terms. Unlike The Greek Miracle, The Human Figure made little reference to the political significance of Athenian democracy. The Human Figure mainly exhibited objects from Ancient Athens, but also used objects from other Greek societies and towns, such as Sparta and Corinth. The main political message driving the exhibition was the greatness of ancient Greece and by extension that of its western inheritors in modern Greece and beyond.

The other main difference was that the objects displayed in The Human Figure included vases and terracottas as well as bronze and stone sculpture. This gave a more rounded view of early Greek art. The ‘journey' from stylization to naturalism was shown through painting techniques on black and red figure vases as well as in large free-standing sculptures. Yannis Tzedakis, Director of Antiquities for the Greek Ministry of Culture wrote in the ‘Introduction' to the catalogue that the Ministry now had a policy:

[...] that the objects be ‘set' in the display area according to the criteria of a specific theme, and with a well-considered educational purpose. The idea is to avoid the traditional museum model in which the objects to be displayed are of necessity confronted as masterpieces presented ‘on parade'. (Tzedakis, 1988:17)

The 1992-3 The Greek Miracle exhibition appeared to belie the stated approach of 1988 as the sculptures, bronze and stone, were very much paraded as ‘masterpiece' art objects with an ideological message rather than a specific theme. In their reaction to the debates and proclamations generated by the ‘2,500 th anniversary' in 1992-93, Ian Morris and Karl Raaflaub suggest that Diana Buitron-Oliver had intended to follow The Human Figure with a similarly themed exhibition and objects ‘but with “Democracy 2,500” looming, politicians took over from the curator'. Morris and Raaflaub contend that the title of the exhibition was forcibly changed. They considered that politics controlled the exhibition of art in The Greek Miracle. This political domination, they argue, was due to the timing of the anniversary which, with the proclamation of the ‘end of history' and with the dominance of American global ‘social democracy' (Morris and Raaflaub 1997(1998):1). There is no doubt that, four years after The Human Figure exhibition, The Greek Miracle had an overt political theme and significance, which contributed to making it appear less intellectually ambitious than the previous exhibition.

The End of History?

Ian Morris and Karl Raaflaub explain why their volume of conference and colloquia papers was added to an already verdant field of publications on democracy in the early 1990s:

Democracy, it seemed, was on everyone's mind. Over the previous three years, pro-democratic uprisings had challenged totalitarian regimes from Beijing to Berlin ; and at just the same time western intellectuals, from Hamburg to Washington DC, were proclaiming that history was reaching its end in the form of social democracy. (Morris and Raaflaub 1997(1998):1).

Democracy was prominent while the Cold War thawed and communist regimes in the Soviet Union and across Central and Eastern Europe crumbled and fell. These revolutions for change for the most part happened peacefully – Romania and the former country of Yugoslavia being two prominent exceptions – and the literal break up of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 was the most iconic image of democratic change. The reaction of the ‘Free World' – mainly western Europe and the USA – verged on triumphalism and it is in this context, Morris and Raaflaub argue, that the anniversary of Kleisthenes' democratic reforms in Athens were celebrated. The ‘vagaries of the calendar' supplied the momentum for such a celebration. The promotion of The Greek Miracle through an advertisement by a tobacco company in a national newspaper proclaiming ‘We are all Greeks now' meant that Athenian and modern democracy were made some how interchangeable (Morris and Raaflaub 1997(1998):1). The major differences between Athenian democracy and modern social capitalist democracies were erased in this triumphal affirmation of freedom and political liberty. Arguably the triumph was less democratic than capitalist. The corporate ‘We are all Greeks now' advertisement underscored and highlighted the assumption that democracy and capitalism – free trade, free markets – are intermeshed. This is, of course, a very modern assumption, as Morris and Raaflaub recognised.

In 1990, a few years before the ‘celebration' of the birth of democracy, Paul Cartledge considered how disparate groups were placing an emphasis on democracy and democratic practice, ranging from the history working group for the National Curriculum in schools to an emphasis on active citizenship and televising of Parliament. Cartledge pointed to the lack of historical perspective in the wild connections made between Greek and modern democracy as well as to the sweeping statements made about the history of modern democratic practice (Cartledge, 1990:7-9). Cartledge pointed out that for the Greeks the meaning of ‘freedom', or eleutheria, was not the same as its modern counterpart and that ‘freedom' was simply not to be a slave or live under the constraints of some one else. These comments were published in History Today (40/2, 1990) – a popular history magazine – and Cartledge was obviously reacting in part to generalising assumptions made about ancient and modern democracy in the public domain and to the notion that democracy in itself constitutes an ‘end'.

In 1989, the year of the ‘cry for democracy' from Tiananmen Square to East Berlin, Francis Fukuyama published an essay entitled ‘The End of History?' in the international journal The National Interest, which he later expanded into a book The End of History and the Last Man in 1992. Fukuyama 's premise was that the ‘unabashed victory of economic and political liberalism' did not signal the end of the Cold War but the end of history: ‘that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of western liberal democracy as the final form of human government' (Fukuyama, 1989:13). He traced what was, as he admits, an idea popular amongst Marxists (history would end in Utopian communism), back to Hegel through the writings of Alexandre Kojeve, a political theorist writing in the 1930s. Fukuyama proclaimed that Marxism was dead as a political form of government and centred his arguments on Japan and other capitalist economies in South East Asia and the European Union. After briefly considering nationalism and religious fundamentalism as threats to the peaceful orderly world envisaged, he dismissed them as unlikely to affect the global order, which would, like the EU, rely on committees and summits to resolve boardroom conflicts. Idealism would be replaced by consumerism, imagination would be needed to solve technical and environmental problems and courage would be transformed into economic calculation. The civilization ‘created in Europe since 1945, with its north Atlantic and Asian offshoots' might get so bored that ‘the end of history will serve to get history started again' (Fukuyama, 1989:18).

The main problem with ‘the end of history' is in that last sentence. Only the western world is considered as important – no mention, for example, is made of South Africa where Apartheid could function as a capitalist regime while denying the majority of its people the vote. Fukuyama is not so much triumphant about the ‘victory of economic and political liberalism' and ‘western liberal democracy' as apathetically complacent (and deluded). His content was controversial in 1989 and has gathered controversy since – some of his arguments have been used in the ‘clash of civilizations' premise put forward by right wing historians in more recent years. There have been numerous discussions and criticisms of ‘the end of history' in academic and public fora. This argument, however misguided, is important for understanding the full context of the celebrations around the ‘birth of democracy' and its meaning to the modern world. The huge global events of 1989 and 1990 in particular gave an inflated emphasis to the ‘anniversary' of democracy, while at the same time making many academics and others keen to think very carefully about democracy and its meanings, as well as the connections between ancient and modern political systems. It also, in part, explains the focus on the ‘western world' and in particular America in the celebrations, whether in exhibitions or at conferences.



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Brenson, M. 1988. ‘Human Figures Enshrined by the Early Greeks', New York Times, February 14, [last accessed 16/05/2008].

Buitron-Oliver, D. and J. McK. Camp II. 1993. ‘Introduction to the Exhibition', in Ober and Hedrick.

Buitron-Oliver, D. et al. 1992. Exhibition Catalogue: The Greek Miracle: Classical Sculpture from the Dawn of Democracy, the Fifth Century B.C, Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art.

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[1] Buitron-Oliver and McK. Camp II (1993), and on the Excavations in the Agora website,;id=Contents [last accessed 11/06/2008].

[2] The phrases are taken from two significant books on museums published in the mid 1990s: Bennett 1995 and Duncan 1995.

[3] 'Obituary: J Carter Brown', 2002.

[4] ibid.