BMCR 2020.10.30

Troy on display: scepticism and wonder at Schliemann’s first exhibition

, Troy on display: scepticism and wonder at Schliemann's first exhibition. Bloomsbury Classical studies monographs. London; New York: Bloomsbury, 2020. xi, 263 p. ISBN 9781788313582 $115.00.


This handsomely produced, generously illustrated book expands the final chapter of Abigail Baker’s PhD thesis into 14 chapters, appraising the sociocultural environment of the first museum display of Schliemann’s finds from Troy and that exhibition’s effects on subsequent attitudes to prehistoric archaeology. She considers three main elements: the reception of Homer’s Troy (usually in classicizing visual and verbal representations), viewers’ diverse experiences of Schliemann’s vision of antiquity, and the different approaches that he, Jane Harrison, and Arthur Evans adopted to present their versions of Greek prehistory.

Part One, the Introduction (“Troy on Display”), proclaims Baker’s intentions (2-12, at 2): “In 1871, Heinrich Schliemann dragged Troy from myth to the headlines… an ambiguous site: a meeting point between fact and fiction with an untrustworthy excavator and novel and complex archaeological evidence.” Identifying the 1877 exhibition at the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert) as the public’s first opportunity “to evaluate Schliemann’s (often fantastical) claims against the material evidence,” her main focus is “the point of crisis at which people who knew only the imagined Troy of text encountered Schliemann’s material Troy and the role of the museum in shaping these encounters.” She rightly characterizes the exhibition as “a carefully constructed representation of Schliemann’s theories”(5).  Baker notes that the “archaeologists, anthropologists, metallurgists and many more” who analyzed the material remains Schliemann had excavated (their interpretations sometimes at odds with the excavator’s own) employed “supposedly ‘scientific’ approaches” that slipped into “irrationality and mythmaking.” She then asks how the quest for “a material and rational approach to Troy” generated new myths of archaeology, both academic and public. The book’s strength lies in its museological perspective on the Troy collection (6-8) and its effects, while the survey of topics covered in the main text (9-12) betrays the work’s pedantic-pedagogical origins.

Chapter 1, “Troy and Truth” (13-27) is Baker’s verdict on Schliemann, already implicit in the title. She begins by emphasizing his sensitivities—“while there had been much scepticism about Troy, this particular attack had struck a nerve” and “Schliemann had notoriously thin skin and hated being criticized” (13). She contends that ever-controversial Troy, together with “its untrustworthy excavator, archaeological complexity and combination of truth and fiction,” is good “for thinking about what fascinates us about the past and questioning the methods we use to understand it” (16). Unsurprisingly, “The Myth of Schliemann” (21-25) abounds in buyer-beware remarks such as “Several things he wrote… cannot possibly be true,” “Archaeologists reflect with horror on the speed and technique of his excavations,” and (wild paralipsis) “I am less interested in evaluating what sort of a man (unreliable narrator, liar, fantasist, father of archaeology) Schliemann was than in exploring how his eccentricities provoked debate about what we can know about the past and who can participate in that knowledge.”

Part Two, “Putting Troy on Show” (29-94), treats “the museum visit as an integrated, embodied experience” (30). Baker observes that while the literature on the impact of Schliemann’s books and lectures is extensive, studies of his exhibitions are not.[1] Her intent to consider the various “media and approaches Schliemann used to ensure that this was not just a neutral display of objects, but a careful demonstration of his own ideas about the site of Troy” (33) signals a straw man, an indisposition to admit that no presentation of evidence, material or intangible, is utterly “neutral.” Chapter 2, “Bringing Troy to London” (35-44), states that Schliemann sought a more prominent and authoritative setting than a table at “the Athenian Bank” (quoted baldly from an 1877 publication) covered with trays of finds from Mycenae (36-37) to exhibit his Trojan antiquities, and that he wanted to control how they were interpreted and published, a revelation no more surprising than that he exploited his connections with A.H. Layard and W.E. Gladstone to further his ambitions. The eventual use of the South Kensington Museum, with its wide-ranging educational mission and modern galleries, however, rather than of the British Museum (Schliemann’s first choice), affords Baker opportunities to discuss several pertinent themes. Because the space allotted for their display was smaller than the excavator had wished, she points out, the finds from Troy had to be “edited” into a “representative” selection (42) and to compete, visually and conceptually, with many non-antique items from diverse periods in various media. Chapter 3, “Making Sense of the Trojan Collection” (45-60), considers Schliemann’s interpretive techniques and aims in selecting and arranging his artifacts. To demonstrate both his ignorance of stratigraphy and his eagerness to collaborate with local scholars, Baker quotes an excerpt of what she calls letters of “the philologist Friedrich Max Müller” (46-47). But the passage was not written by Müller himself; it is a transitional narrative by his widow Georgina, reminiscing about Schliemann’s visits ca. 1875, for a volume she published in 1902. Baker does not explain how a Sanskrit philologist without direct experience of India could assist a field archaeologist with stratigraphy at a time when prehistoric chronology was in its infancy. She discusses at length how and why Schliemann labeled the Troy finds and used photographs to illustrate their context rhetorically (46-59; “topological” appears for “topographical”), as also his aim, “to capture the public imagination and shape people’s enthusiasm for and expectations of the exhibition” (53), and further interactions with the public as responses emerged. Chapter 4, “How Schliemann Displayed his Treasures” (61-94) offers a detailed description and analysis of the exhibition itself, which occupied almost half the South Kensington Museum’s temporary exhibition space from 1877 to 1880. Baker’s attempt to recreate something of the experience of case-by-case viewing is thought-provoking. The plethora of excerpts from newspapers in the UK, the USA, and New Zealand, however, deserves deeper critical treatment of their journalistic origin and content than a remark (65) that Schliemann’s vision of Troy as represented in these “very unclassical” objects “inspired debates about the evolution of art.”

Part Three, “Schliemania?”, encompasses Chapters 5-8: “Visualizing Troy” (99-114), “The Appeal of the Primitive” (115-124),“Laughing at Schliemann” (125-130), and “Weighing Up Ancient Troy” (131-135). In Baker’s telling, popularizing visualizations on Trojan themes can generally be classified as either “anachronistic” or “exotic.” While neither tendency served the cause of (pre-)historical accuracy, both generated some curious fashions, housewares, and art objects. Her look at the “primitive” aspect of Schliemann’s discoveries, a harder nut for viewers and commentators to crack, highlights Walter Pater, who attempted to reconcile archaeological artifacts with Homer’s epics by appealing to “craftsmanship” and “simplicity” (120-121), and the positive (but apparently anonymous) response to the exhibition in the North Otago Times, characterized as an “outlier” perhaps connected with the cultural appropriation of Maori art by Romantic-minded New Zealand colonists (122-123). The brief treatment of comic reactions to Schliemann’s sometimes overly literal interpretations of the Troy finds, with quotations from Funny Folks and other British “comic picture papers,” relies on Rachel Bryant Davies’ recent work.[2] The brief chapter on “weighing” focuses on the interest of bureaucrats and bankers in Schliemann’s collection regarding its value and the value system it implied; the conceptualization of ancient standards and systems of measurement and the metallurgical analysis of artifacts occurred in the context of contemporary debates on the gold standard and systems of international trade.

Part Four, “Troy’s Place in History,” contains Chapters 9-11: “The Other Homeric Question” (141-150), “How Old Was Troy?” (151-160), and “Who Were the Trojans?” (161-175). It returns to questions such as “whether Homer was true,” how (not whether) the finds should be correlated with the texts, the real age of Troy, what role evolutionary theory and cultural change / technological progress had in establishing chronology, and what race (ethnolinguistic group) the Trojans were. These areas of inquiry are indicated, however, rather than explored and explained.

Part Five, “Troy’s Legacy,” ends the volume with Chapters 11-14, “Jane Harrison’s Odyssey” (181-188), “Arthur Evans’s Labyrinth” (189-196), and “Dream and Reality” (197-204). These subjects afford Baker the opportunity to talk about Harrison’s text- and iconography-driven interpretations of Greek art in the British Museum for women, girls, and other scholars, putting a different twist on Schliemann’s approach to the literary and material evidence to make archaeological objects tell their own stories which could “illustrate and elucidate Homer” (188). Evans likewise developed the themes and techniques Schliemann had originated for his own Bronze Age discoveries at Knossos, persuasively employing a range of visual and mythic arguments to promote his interpretations. The final chapter returns to the dream-reality/myth-truth debate that reignited amid the publicity of the 2001 Stuttgart exhibition on Troy’s metamorphoses since antiquity, highlighting discoveries by the multidisciplinary team investigating the site since the 1980s. Musing about what Troy may mean today, Baker touches upon the contentions of archaeologist Manfred Korfmann, ancient historian Frank Kolb, and literary-critical-historical theoretician Hayden V. White en route to her conclusion (204): archaeologists must choose “whether or not to acknowledge that our understanding of the past comes from fallible human beings, working to make sense of patchy evidence in ways that serve present needs and interests.”

The book’s strength, its contemporary museological approach to Schliemann, is likewise its weakness. Baker’s acceptance of presentist assessments of value sometimes prompts occasional literary or philosophical samplings dissociated from their historical implications. She quotes Hayden White’s take on Michael Oakeshott (201), not Oakeshott himself, whereas fundamental work on how and why societies invent traditions and selectively cultivate cultural memory is oddly lacking.[3]

Baker is aware that curious Victorians viewed “case after case of strange-looking pottery, crumbling metalwork, stone tools and thousands of spindle whorls” (2) with perceptions already influenced by the “hype” generated by the excavator himself and by millennia of Classicizing textual and visual responses to Homeric themes, so that their “evaluation” of the material evidence drew only on those influences and their own personal experiences. But she does not alert readers to the disciplinary and societal disconnects between the 1870s and the 2020s. Nor is her tendency to direct quotation, often from newspaper articles and reviews contemporary with the exhibition and a limited range of mostly English-language scholarship, balanced by efforts to contextualize authors and audiences or to elucidate the origins of various controversies.[4]

Baker may propose to “explore what it means for real objects to be used as material evidence for fantastical claims” (5) but fails to mention that archaeology as a scientific discipline with its own principles, methods, and aims would have been unknown to Victorian media’s producers and consumers, who saw it as a servant of philology. Her handling of archaeology consequently inspires little confidence, favoring vague expressions like “The idea that archaeological stratigraphy resembles the layered rereadings of texts across long spans of time is one that also crops up in the writings of Classicists,” “fascination,” and “controversy” (26-27). Rather, she would have done well to acknowledge Schliemann’s capacity to learn from experience and from his colleagues, his contributions to Bronze Age archaeology, and the stratigraphical parallel drawn by his admirer Sigmund Freud.[5] Regrettably, these opportunities to engage with tellingly specific details of the archaeological Troy’s reception are missed while full bibliographical references, twice- and thrice-repeated, fatten the endnotes and reference list.


[1] D.F. Easton, “Priam’s Gold: The Full Story,” Anatolian Studies 44 (1994): 221-243; G. Saherwala, K. Goldmann, G. Mahr, Heinrich Schliemanns ‘Sammlung Trojanischer Altertümer’ (Berlin 1993); L. Fitton, The Discovery of the Greek Bronze Age (Cambridge, Mass. 1996). Baker’s thank-yous (x) misspell Fitton’s first name. She knows Schliemann’s communications with the South Kensington Museum only as “summaries in the letters book” (32), not the other items of incoming and outgoing correspondence with British scholars held by the Gennadius Library Archives (Heinrich Schliemann Papers) of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens.

[2] R. Bryant Davies, Troy, Carthage and the Victorians: The Drama of Classical Ruins in the Nineteenth-Century Imagination (Cambridge 2018), esp. 103-120. Cf. P. Ackroyd, The Fall of Troy (London 2006).

[3] Literary/philosophical references are made without appreciation of their deeper significance: 25 (on Borges and Don Quixote), 120-121 (on Walter Pater), and 200 (on Barthes’ Mythologies). H.V. White, The Practical Past (Evanston 2014). See E. Hobsbawm and T. Ranger, The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge 1983); J. Assmann, Religion and Cultural Memory: Ten Studies (2005); P. Nora, Realms of Memory, 3 vols. (Chicago 1998).

[4] On page 13, for example, Baker quotes William Simpson’s report on Schliemann’s Troy excavations in Fraser’s Magazine, then reproduces an excerpt from the May 1879 Independent Statesman of New Hampshire on 14-15, and on 18 goes on to quote George Grote’s 1846 History of Greece, as if 19th-century texts were as self-explanatory (not!) as the prehistoric artifacts on display.

[5] S.A.H. Kennell, “Schliemann and the Foreign Schools,” Pharos 10 (2002): 135-156, “Schliemann and His Papers: A Tale from the Gennadeion Archives,” Hesperia 76 (2007): 785-817; P. Gay, The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud 5: Pleasure Wars (New York 1998), 140-141.