A Bronze Bust and its Legacy at the RISD Museum

Photo credit: RISD Museum.

About a year ago now, I submitted my final assignment for a class with Yannis Hamilakis called Decolonizing Classical Antiquity: White Nationalism, Colonialism, and Ancient Material Heritage. The prompt was “Decolonizing the Museum”: we were to select one object from the nearby RISD Museum, research its history and context, and present it from a decolonial perspective. The object I selected is shown above. It was previously known as “Vase and Lid in the Form of the Head of a Nubian Boy.” I argued that the name should be changed to avoid racial language. Why? To answer, here’s an excerpt from my paper:

I argue that the name used for this object should be changed from “Vase and Lid in the Form of the Head of a Nubian Boy” to remove racial (and gendered) language. An example of an alternative title is “Vase and Lid in the Form of the Head of a Child.” I suggest that the word “boy” be replaced with “child,” since there is no clear evidence that the subject is male. Making this change acknowledges the legacy of patriarchy in naming museum objects; the “unmarked” term should not be masculine. Most importantly, I strongly believe that racial terms like “Nubian” should be avoided when naming objects. As I contended earlier, using such terms – even with the best of intentions – reinforces the structural racism that still pervades our world today. Removing racial language from the label of the object is not a panacea, but it does signify the commitment of the RISD Museum to a just future. Leaving out racial language also does not mean ignoring the continuing legacy of racism, especially in the United States. Ideally, a name like “Vase and Lid in the Form of the Head of a Child” would force the viewer to reflect on their ideas of race. Whiteness is currently the norm; no object is (or should be) described as a “Vase and Lid in the Form of the Head of a White Child.” Using unmarked language (with no racial descriptor) for the object under question normalizes blackness. Rather than ignoring race, changing the label to remove racial terminology provokes reflection on race and racism while also avoiding ahistorical vocabulary that is inappropriate when referring to classical antiquity.

My full paper is available here if you’re interested in reading more. What I was happiest about, though, is that this paper actually made a difference (albeit a small one). After the class, I emailed Gina Borromeo, the curator of ancient art, suggesting this change. It took nine or ten months, but I’m very glad to say that the object is now called “Bust of a Child”!

John Wesley Gilbert: some clarifications

John Wesley Gilbert at an unknown date. Photo credit: Michigan State University.

Update: I gave the presentation I mentioned below in March 2018; the paper I delivered is available here.

I am currently preparing a presentation on John Wesley Gilbert, based off of a paper I wrote for a class in Fall 2017. Gilbert is not very well-known, so here’s some brief notes about him by John W. I. Lee, who wrote a piece on Gilbert’s work with the American School of Classical Studies at Athens:

Gilbert graduated from Paine College in Augusta, Georgia, then received his BA from Brown University in 1888. As a Brown MA student in 1890–1891 he became the first African American to study in Greece at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA). During his year in Greece, Gilbert participated in the American School’s excavations at the ancient site of Eretria on the island of Euboea.



Here, I would like to clarify the chronology of a few events in Gilbert’s life, specifically relating to his education and relationship with Paine College. Continue reading John Wesley Gilbert: some clarifications

The “Temple of Aphrodite”

My mother was born and raised in Limassol (Lemesos), a city on the southern coast of Cyprus which I also lived in for five years. The city proper is not ancient; the oldest building is the medieval castle. Yet the Limassol metropolitan area is anchored at its western and eastern ends by the ancient cities of Kourion (Curium) and Amathus, respectively. Going to the beach, to a restaurant, or visiting friends often involves passing by these very tangible reminders of classical antiquity. Examples of neoclassicism also abound, though they often take surprising forms. Cypriot buildings that draw on classical elements are mostly unlike the civic architecture of, for example, Washington, DC; to put it uncharitably, Cypriot neoclassicism is generally “touristy” and “kitsch.” One characteristic example comes to mind: a structure called Aphrodite’s Temple that was built just a few hundred meters from my school in Palodia, around ten kilometers from Limassol. A few months after Aphrodite’s Temple opened, police raided the building and arrested the operators on charges of sexual exploitation. The owner’s lawyer threatened to reveal the names of prominent government officials who patronized the brothel if the prosecution continued. The intermingling of classical antiquity and powerful interests – including the archbishop of Cyprus, according to one source – demonstrates how the material legacy of classical antiquity continues to be meaningful in Cyprus.

ΟΕΔΒ and Classical antiquity

When I attended Cypriot public school, I remember glancing at the back cover of many textbooks in moments of boredom. Staring back at me from some corner of the textbook’s cover was almost always an owl standing on a pile of books. Many years later, I visited the RISD museum and stopped in front of their display of ancient Greek coins. There again was that same owl, staring at me with its bulging eyes. As it turns out, at the time I was in primary school many Cypriot textbooks were published by the Οργανισμός Εκδόσεως Διδακτικών Βιβλίων (Organismos Ekdoseos Didaktikon Vivlion, State Organisation for the Publication of School Textbooks), or ΟΕΔΒ for short. This organization was founded by the Metaxas dictatorship in 1937, which had close ties with Greek nationalism.1 ΟΕΔΒ has long played a crucial role in the propagation of state ideology, as might be expected from a state-sanctioned publisher. For example, ΟΕΔΒ is tasked with producing history textbooks by the Ministry of Education. The aims provided by the ministry include “developing an ‘awareness of Hellenic continuity’” and “cultivating genuine national pride.”2 The role of ΟΕΔΒ in the construction of Hellenism intertwines state authority and the legacy of classical antiquity. Nowhere is this better symbolized than in ΟΕΔΒ’s logo, which is little more than a stylized version of the Athenian owl (see above). The owl was a symbol of Athena and of wisdom. In this role, the owl was famously used as the reverse of the tetradrachm – a type of silver coin – minted in Athens from at least 500 BCE.3 ΟΕΔΒ clearly paid homage to this coin in its choice of logo, thus also identifying classical Athens as the root of education in the modern Greek state.