Walking into the British Museum’s ‘Troy: Myth and Reality” exhibition, one is immediately transported to an ancient world of heroes, gods, and great wars. This is an era of mortals and mythology, women, wanderers, and wonder. The exhibition thus attempts to narrate the complex legend of Troy through archaeological accounts and classical epos whilst showcasing the tale’s power of inspiration through contemporary and classical artwork.
Immediately upon entering the large, airy hall, I encountered my first and favourite piece. Vengeance of Achilles (1962) is a piece of abstract art with intense scribbles resembling an arrow or ‘A’ shape. The tip of the letter sees violent red strokes and scribbles, appearing as if the artist has taken to the canvas in rage. This is precisely the significance of the art. In the legend of the Trojan War, Achilles is overwhelmed by a fit of rage on the battlefield upon hearing news of the death of his closest companion Patroclus. This rage (initially directed at his fellow Achaeans) drives Achilles to become a hurricane of carnage in battle, finally killing the Trojan prince Hector. The abstract piece by Cy Twombly is simple yet poignant in presenting Achilles’ redirection of anger in Homer’s Illiad. Notably, at first his anger is directed inwards at the Greek king Agamemnon. It is then pointed outwards towards the Trojans, which alters the course of the war, thus emphasising the upward arrow shape in Vengeance of Achilles.
Throughout the exhibition, there are key Greek terms suspended from the ceiling, emphasising the multi-dimensional aspect of the legend. The war was characterised by conflict and rage, menin. However, the war was also characterised by the specific heroes’ nostoi, homecomings. The most famous being the adventurous nostos of Odysseus, as narrated in Homer’s Odyssey. It made me realise how many angles one could take from the initial tale of the ten-year war. The universality of Troy stems from the interpretation, adaption, and translations by later poets, authors, and artists. This is what contributes to its longevity as first an oral epic, to later legend.
One then deports from mythology to go view archaeological evidence. It is fascinating to see images of excavations carried out by Heinrich Schliemann in north-western Turkey. The images show existence of a damaged ancient wall, untouched since antiquity, perhaps proof that a war had taken place. The exhibit is successful in combining geography, mythology, and architecture to spark the notion that the Homeric city of Ilium, could have been very much real.
The exhibition gives voices to the multiple narratives at Troy, doing justice to the complex multi-narrative plot. The voices of women, in particular, are highlighted in the main hallway of the exhibition where there are several portraits of Helen, the woman who’s “face launched a thousand ships.” The area reserved for interpretations of Helen pays homage to famous scholarship within Classical studies which still debates whether the character of Helen is a victim, or a seductress.
Finally, perhaps the most fascinating art installation is the Shield of Achilles (2013) by Spencer Finch. It combines light readings taken from the plains of where Troy was thought to be located to create a vivid, brilliant sphere of light. This resembles the famed shield of Achilles, whilst referencing the skies of Troy as our Greek heroes must have seen them. It’s a dazzling end to an exhibition about the wonders of the ancient world.
The Trojan war was governed by force, strategy, and redemption narratives. This was a world where conflict gave the opportunity to gain kleos, honour. Just as Homer calls upon the Muse in the beginning of the Illiad, the exhibition calls upon inspiration and interpretation from artists to reinvent and reimagine these ancient epics.
As a Classics student myself, I can understand the allure of the ‘lost city’ and its various characters. It is tragic, exciting, and dramatic, all factors that are considered in the Myth and Reality exhibit, proving that the story of Troy speaks to people across all places and times.