“The showpiece (of the exhibit) is a large marble Roman copy of a Greek statue of Poseidon. It’s the first thing you see when you walk into the show,” said Erin Averett, Assistant Professor of Archaeology at Creighton University and Adjunct Curator of Antiquities at Joslyn Art Museum.
Averett refers to Poseidon as one of the “big three” of the Olympian gods. Poseidon and his brothers, Zeus and Hades divided up rule of the universe. Zeus controlled the sky and heavens; Hades ruled the Underworld and Poseidon got the sea.
Averett explained the sea was extremely central to the life of all ancient Mediterranean cultures. She said she thinks people will be interested because of the connections Poseidon has with the sea, from travel by sea and naval warfare to the sea as a source of food and natural disasters.
“He’s a very powerful deity. And because the sea is not always nice, Poseidon is not always a nice god. Even though he’s one of the main ruling deities, you have to appease him. If you don’t, your ship might get wrecked or be attacked by pirates or lost at sea. He’s a god that could become angry very easily but he certainly has a lot of personality,” said Averett.
The objects in the show are not only from the ancient Greek culture but also the Etruscans, who were an early culture in central Italy – what is modern day Tuscany – and also the Romans. The Romans called him Neptune while the Etruscans called him Nethuns.
So there are objects on view from the three different cultures and these pieces span a long amount of time. The earliest items in the show come from the end of the 8th century B.C.E. The most recent objects are from the 4th century A.D. More than 1,000 years of history are represented in this one exhibit.
Averett said the types of objects are also varied. There are humble pieces that were used in daily life, things like fishhooks or the tools that fishermen used to fix their nets. And then there are beautiful red and black figure vases that Averett explained would have been very sought after in the ancient world.
The show is divided into three major themes: mythology, because the Greeks told stories about their gods, the cult of Poseidon and daily life.
“The mythology section features objects that show Poseidon or a hero or divinity related to Poseidon, such as his son Theseus. The cult of Poseidon segment focuses on pieces that show the religious worship of Poseidon as well as items that may have been dedicated to him,” said Averett.
The exhibition comprises three galleries with the first one dealing with myth, the second one myth and the cult of Poseidon and the last gallery has the daily life objects.
It was a conscious decision to break up the items in the show by theme. Averett said they didn’t want to overload visitors with an overly scholarly view. She said this way, museum goers won’t get bogged down in the details. It’s a decision Averett believes makes the show more approachable.
In addition to daily life objects, the last gallery also holds an illustrated chronological timeline so people can reflect back on the items they’ve seen to get a sense of the vast amount of time covered in the exhibit.
Averett believes the human element of the show might surprise people.
“There are themes ancient Greeks dealt with about what it means to be human that we still struggle with today, especially things like worrying about natural disasters. The ancient Greeks just chose to deal with it by worshipping Poseidon and trying to make peace with him. Today we deal with it in different ways,” she said.
Averett acknowledges ancient Greece may seem a little remote to most people living in landlocked Omaha. She said people might know some of the myths but the Greeks may well seem foreign or quite different from those us living today. But she said the elements the Greeks dealt with in daily life, things like how to get your food, how to prepare your food, how to deal with water issues, these are all things that still speak to us across the centuries, even today.
Poseidon and the Sea is definitely an exhibit you can appreciate simply for its aesthetic value.
According to Averett, there’s a lot to appreciate in the details of the pieces.
“Visitors have been intrigued by the red and black figure vases because when you see them in person, the care with which these vase painters executed these scenes is really amazing and the stories on them are really interesting to see,” she said.
Other objects that are simply really visually impressive include a 14-foot bronze trident and several marble sarcophagi (coffin) fragments.
But if you really want to learn a little something, there’s a mobile stop for that.
Last semester, Averett held an independent study in which eight art history students at Creighton wrote the mobile stops for the exhibition. She said this is a really accessible way, if you don’t want to read a lot, to still learn about 14 of the objects in the show.
“I wanted to involve the students in what it was like to work at a museum and work on a traveling show. This was a unique opportunity for my students to see antiquities in person,” Averett said.
Students chose pieces that spoke to them from a draft of the catalog, researched them and then had to distill that research down into a two-minute sound bite. Averett selected the best ones and edited them for final inclusion into the show.
Using the mobile stops is as simple as dialing a number into your phone when you get to the Joslyn.
Averett said, “Some of the students were experts in antiquity but not all of them so it gave you a vision of what the average museum goer might be interested in and what they might want to learn more about.”
She said students wrote more stops than were needed because they weren’t sure how the layout was going to be done. Stops needed to be scattered and not clustered in only a few locations.
“The students were excited to do this. They had a wonderful time and they were chomping at the bit to see the show when it opened and hear the mobile stops they wrote. They are very invested in it and I think that’s neat,” enthused Averett.
Both the trident and the marble statue of Poseidon are included as mobile stops.
Averett said the opening weekend went well. She spent a lot of time in the galleries listening to people’s comments and in general said she found viewers to be impressed.
“I study objects like these all the time so I guess I am sort of jaded about it but these people were like, ‘Wow, this object is 2,500 years old.’ It amazed them that they were so close to these objects. And it was great to see them form connections to these people that lived in such a different culture so long ago,” said Averett.
Poseidon and the Sea runs through May 11th at Joslyn Art Museum, 2200 Dodge Street, Call 402.342.3300 or visit joslyn.org.