It's not all bad news coming out of Greece these days. If you're in this city between now and April 26, there's the opportunity to see some very, very good things from that country – 500 or so good things, in fact. They're at the Pointe-à-Callière Museum, the archeology and history complex on the Old Montreal riverfront that, since mid-December, has been the premier host for a highly touted touring exhibition of Greek antiquities.
Titled The Greeks – Agamemnon to Alexander the Great, it's being billed as the largest showcase of ancient Greek artifacts ever to tour North America. Carefully culled from the collections of more than 20 Greek museums, more than half the works have until now never been permitted to leave their homeland. Once the show finishes in Montreal, it travels to the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau for four months beginning June 5, followed by residencies at Chicago's Field Museum and the National Geographic Museum in Washington. (The CMH is the lead partner among the consortium of these museums.)
Having attracted close to 45,000 visitors to date, the exhibition clearly is a hit in Montreal, and PAC, which opened in 1992, is entertaining hopes for a final tally three times that. Having recently toured its treasures, it's easy to understand the appeal: The exhibition, spanning more than 5,000 years, doesn't stint on the bling, the iconic, the novel (anyone for a 13th-century-BC helmet made of wild boars' tusks?), yet there are plenty of quieter moments, smaller things, discreet charms. There is, in short, a balance between the aristocratic and the demotic, the everyday and the celebratory/ceremonial.
So you have, displayed for the first time outside its home at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, the so-called, all-gold "eyes of Agamemnon mask," 3,600-plus years old, excavated at the royal citadel of Mycenae in 1876 by the legendary Heinrich Schliemann. There's also the incised gold-and-silver diadem believed to have been worn by Philip II of Macedon on the afternoon in 336 BC he was assassinated at his daughter's wedding. Philip was succeeded by his 20-year-old son, the all-conquering Alexander, who is most strikingly represented here by two signature pieces, both from the Archaeological Museum of Pella in northern Greece, one an armless nude statue of Alexander as the god Pan, the other a heroic, handsome marble bust sans nose.
Counterposed to this is a variety of more modest pleasures: coins, perfume containers, bowls; a folded-arm female figurine in marble from Amorgos, circa 2,800 BC, that would not have been out of place in the studio of Henry Moore, Picasso or Modigliani; an intriguing amulet of green steatite, possibly as much as 7,000 years old, incised to look like a crouching figure or curled fetus; a miniature, four-wheeled iron cart from 540 BC that's an anticipation of sorts of Giacometti's Chariot. Or is it the other way around, Chariot as a Giacomettian homage to the Greek wagon?
The show is divided into six zones, beginning with the so-called Aegean Prelude, highlighted by the Minoan civilization on the island of Crete, and ending with Alexander's untimely death, at 32, in 323 BC. In between there are "encounters" with warriors and priestesses, athletes and artisans, the mythic and the famous, including Leonidas, kick-ass king of the Spartans, Homer (no fewer than seven locations in Greece claim to be the poet's birthplace, none named Springfield), Plato, Aristotle, Sophocles and the Lady of Aigai.
As befits our modern, image-addled age, the exhibition abounds with videos (on how the Greeks made buttons and cast bronze weapons, among others), animation presentations, maps and photo murals (of Mount Olympus, the Pella mosaics). But over all, the show very much venerates the antiquities themselves, their actuality as functional and aesthetic objects, as media to both tell and complement stories and histories. The exhibition's single most irritating element, in fact, isn't visual; it's the New Agey lyre-and-choral music that plinks and oooohs and aahhhs incessantly on PAC's two floors of exhibition space.
Funnily enough, particularly given its blockbusterish subtitle (ain't no bigger dudes in Greek lore than Agamemnon, conqueror of Troy, and Alexander, a.k.a. "the Great One"!), The Greeks is not especially dramatic – a result, I think, of PAC's relatively tight quarters, the low, exposed ceilings and the labyrinth-like weave of its epic narrative. This is most noticeable on the first floor, particularly in the show's opening sections. But what The Greeks lacks in drama and monumentality it gains in intimacy. You can get really close to its contents; closer, maybe, than you might comfortably wish if the crowd gets large. (It will be interesting to see how the Canadian Museum of History spaces it in June.)
Arriving as it has on our shores at a most critical moment in modern Greek history, The Greeks doesn't lack for agendas. Clearly, as a feat of cultural diplomacy, it's a reminder that Greece is us, not just some beach resort writ large with an economically disadvantaged, restive populace but a civilization whose many legacies – democracy, the Olympic Games, theatre, philosophy, Euclidean geometry – are deeply integral to Western culture and the world's. At the same time, the presentation of so many choice artifacts from the length and breadth of the country is an invitation for increased tourism: "Like this stuff? There's plenty more where this came from, in often spectacular locations. C'mon over."
Another motive is related to Greece's herculean effort for the restoration of the Elgin Marbles, those legendary sculptures and friezes that British diplomat Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, removed to England from the Parthenon in Athens in the early 19th century. Elgin subsequently sold the works to the British government, which, in turn, placed them in the British Museum, their home now for almost two centuries. Greece has long regarded this scenario as an act of imperialist pillage and, in recent years, has launched many initiatives to get the marbles back, not the least being the construction, in 2009, of a huge, state-of-the-art museum at the foot of the Acropolis in which to permanently display them. With a tour as ambitious and large as The Greeks, the country is in effect saying: "See what incredible stuff we're prepared to tour! Give us stewardship of the Parthenon Marbles and more treasures will flow to the museums and galleries of the world!"
A less obvious gambit, perhaps, is the way the exhibition is being used to reinforce Greece's claim on Alexander as a Greek hero. The country has been feuding for at least 20 years with the Republic of Macedonia, created out of the former Yugoslavia upon the collapse of communism. The republic, of course, borders northern Greece, in particular the Greek province of Macedonia where one finds the ruins of Pella, one-time capital of ancient Macedon and Alexander's birthplace, as well as the astonishing tomb of Philip II near the town of Aigai. This hasn't stopped the republic from claiming Alexander as its own (after all, it shares the same territory as the historic empire of Alexander), at the same time Greece has been urging the republic to change its name, arguing its use of the nomenclature and associated symbols and gestures smack of territorial ambition.
Knowing this doesn't detract from one's enjoyment of The Greeks. But it does demonstrate the persistence of ancient and old history in informing present-day Greece. As Alcestis Papadimitriou, overseer of the Agamemnon citadel in Mycenae, told a group of Canadian journalists last November: "What we are is an effect of what we were."