Runs until 14th August 2016
From 21 April until 14 August 2016 the British Museum will display artefacts that showcase Sicily’s cultural diversity, starting at the Archaic and continuing into the Norman era.
An instructive timeline is drawn up near the entrance of the exhibition. The various invasions experienced by the island are shown in a clear chronological structure: from the Phoenicians, a community of seafaring merchants originating in the Levant, the Classical Greeks, the inclusion of the island into the Roman, and later the Byzantine Empire, to the Arab, and finally Norman conquests. The visitor is informed about how the exhibition will display each culture in turn.
A large variety of artefacts are included in the exhibition. An altar, carved with the images of two goddesses, Demeter and her daughter Persephone, illustrates the Classical Greeks’ influence and the pertinence of mythology in everyday activities. The exhibition proceeds to reveal the continuation of Greek culture; during the island’s inclusion within the Roman Empire, Greek language continued alongside the use of Roman, revealed in inscriptions juxtaposing both alphabets. Sicily’s myriad of cultures is also present with regards to religion. Clay lamps survive which represent both Roman gods alongside the adoption of Christianity. Nor did the Norman Conquest obliterate what the Arabs had exerted upon the island’s character. The Holy Roman Emperor, Roger II incorporated Arab-Norman architecture, shown in a beautifully carved wooden ceiling panel and an Arab inscription which are featured in the Norman palace in Palermo. The exhibition, however, doesn’t focus solely on objects discovered on the island. Literary fragments are written along the walls, revealing poets’ and writers’ impression of Sicily: Pindar’s Odes Nemean 1 reveals that Persephone was born in Sicily and the exhibition ingeniously links this to the artefacts related to this Goddess which were found on the island.
“Relatively small in size, a detailed account of all the cultures which influenced Sicily were clearly displayed and nicely spread out”
Ancient and Medieval Sicily’s incorporation of and tolerance towards Western, Islamic, Byzantine, and Norman culture encouraged scientific innovation and restoration of literal texts. Writings from Plato were preserved on the island in Arabic, later to be translated into Latin for a western audience. The importance of Sicily for preserving the academic material which we still consult today cannot be understated.
Throughout the exhibition contemporary photos are displayed, providing an interesting contrast to the ancient and medieval artefacts. The photos help the visitor to visualise the island and link the artefacts to locations. For those interested in numismatics, coins are pinpointed on a map to show precisely where they were found.
Alongside information provided for adults, an interactive element is included for children. Questions, including that position beneath a bust of Roger II which asks the visitor what he or she thinks of the Holy Roman Emperor’s appearance, encourages children to engage with the exhibition and helps prevent them from being overwhelmed by the volume of history.
The main disadvantages of the exhibition relate to the layout of the artefacts. Certain objects unfortunately were placed in corners, causing a conglomeration of visitors and it was therefore often difficult to view the artefact. Furthermore, the information texts provided for the artefacts were all situated at the same level. During busy times, it was difficult to read the plaques. Having a few of these positioned slightly higher may have helped because some visitors could stand further back rather than everyone craning in at the front to read them.
I would highly recommend a visit to this exhibition overall. Relatively small in size, a detailed account of all the cultures which influenced Sicily were clearly displayed and nicely spread out. The exhibition also appeals to a wide demographic. It is an intuitive exhibition for anyone who is near the British Museum and is interested in discovering more about Sicily, what I now believe to be an understated island during this period, even if he or she have only thirty minutes to spare.
Image: © Regione Siciliana