Wednesday, October 10, 2007

cross-posted from

“The Louvre and the Ancient World,” just opened at Atlanta’s High Museum, is another one of those exercises in museology that is hard to get one’s head around. The purpose of putting these objects from the Louvre in these galleries is not to present the cultures from which these objects sprang; it is to present the history of the cultural institution that collected them.

This was amply illustrated by the curator’s remark that the Department of Egyptian Antiquities was not, as people think, founded with the plunder from Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt. It was founded by Napoleon’s chief archaeologist a quarter-century later, but with objects shipped back by diplomats, because in the meantime Napoleon had lost the war and his Egyptian stuff had all been hauled off to the British Museum.

One object with an eighteenth-century provenance is a lovely example of the dilemmas posed by history. It’s a portrait statue of an Egyptian notable who went round the country depositing in temples statues of himself with the local gods perched protectively on his lap.

This leads me to think that there must surely be a book about the evolution of donor portraits, which in antiquity raise the donors to the status of gods themselves, handing off the church building to Christ or whatever. Then donors become humble suppliants, albeit present at the creation as they kneel beside the manger in Bethlehem in medieval altarpieces. Eventually they become apotheosized again, but in the guise of monumental portraiture, and the gods have nothing to do with it.

But this particular donor statue was damaged in antiquity, and has acquired an incongruously Greek nose in the process of restoration. Furthermore, and this is the part that most interests me, the eighteenth century restorers turned the local gods on his lap into the Egyptian gods that were more familiar to eighteenth century viewers.

I am reminded of my meditation a year or so ago about London’s restoration of Russell Square to its original design, with a twenty-first century Italian panini shop in one corner. Original authenticity and contemporary experience are juxtaposed, but in the process everything that twentieth century authors knew as Russell Square has vanished.

This is why the Louvre curators have left this statue in its present odd condition; even if it could be restored to something closer to its original state, what would be lost would be the alterations that reveal the mindset of the intervening centuries. There is no comfortable way of having both, of creating an archaeological palimpsest in which all the successive layers show up equally.


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