Culture Critic Molly Schoenfeld reviews the British Museum’s new exhibition which contemplates the evolution of the trojan myth and how it has influenced European culture and art
Troy: Myth and Reality is a varied and eclectic exhibition at the British Museum, centres around the Trojan War, believed to have taken place from 1260 to 1180 BCE. Like Odysseus, you are taken on a journey; except this one is from pottery to Brad Pitt. The story begins with a very irate Eris, goddess of Discord, creating an apple designated “for the fairest”. Paris of Troy selects this apple to go to Aphrodite, who in return gives him Helena: the beautiful wife of Menelaus, king of Sparta. This causes Menelaus to send his army under his brother to attack Troy. After the deaths of many heroes and years of destruction, Troy falls to the famous trick of the Trojan Horse.
There are three sections to this exhibition: the first explains the story of Troy, the next looks at the archaeological findings associated with Troy, and the last at Troy’s influence in culture throughout history. The myth of Troy certainly rivals that of a daytime soap opera: if Zeus is not having intimate relations with the swan form of the queen of Sparta, a maddened Ajax is killing himself after mistaking some Greek cattle as the Greek soldiers. Immediately, you are plunged into a bleak battlefield, with the sound of whistling wind and Anthony Caro’s sculpture mimicking the Trojan battlefield. The next room gradually comes into view: the sight of shelf upon shelf of stone tablets, pots, funerary urn fragments and vast sarcophagi is a feast for the eyes. Suspended above it all is a gigantic wooden structure, resembling that of the Trojan Horse so that it feels as though you are inside it.
The myth is told primarily through the artefacts themselves, which depict scenes from the war. Our most comprehensive account of the myth, however, is from Homer in his Iliadand Odyssey, and Virgil in his Aeneid, the lines of which are read aloud at the start of the exhibition. The manuscripts of Homer are breath-taking. In addition, Roman children’s schoolwork is on display, with a pupil writing a line of the Aeneid seven times on Papyrus. This poignantly emphasises the impact of the myth throughout time. It is this tradition of storytelling which is emphasised throughout the exhibition. An interesting point is raised of whether Homer even existed, with some scholars asserting that the story of Troy was accumulated through oral tradition instead.
The monsters in the myth are more bizarre than one of Tim Burton’s films, but equally enthralling. Sirens lure Odysseus from his ship, though they are not the beautiful mermaids we grew up watching on H20: Just Add Water, but hideous part-bird creatures. There is also Scylla: a human-eating, multi-headed sea monster who is part-woman and part-octopus with a girdle of vicious dog-heads and tentacles which she uses to kill men – wow!
Next, the exhibition moves on to the archaeological findings: Troy is not entirely a myth. The works of Homer were reintroduced to western Europe during the Renaissance, which motivated people to search for Troy. Books are on display containing thoughts of archaeologists desperately trying to find Troy. Finally, in the nineteenth Century, Heinrich Schliemann, discovered Troy in Hisarlık in north-western Turkey. There were in fact nine layers to Hisarlık, which are now called Troy I to IX and existed over 3600 years. Schliemann found the ‘Burnt City’, Troy II and III, and believed this to be the Troy from the myth. But this was a layer from 3000 to 2000 BC which was too early for Troy. A photo of Schliemann’s Great Trench shows that his team were hasty and accidentally destroyed vital evidence. Among the many displayed artefacts found at Troy, a huge storage jar for grain sits formidably among the treasures (which by the way, The British Museum, my mother would like in her garden if it’s not too much trouble).
Lastly, we reach the art and literature that has been inspired by the Trojan War. Medieval manuscripts with vibrant colours depict stories influenced by Troy: European aristocracies were ‘wannabe’ Trojans and even invented characters from Troy so that they could trace back their roots to the city. A section of the 2016 Queens of Syriaplay performed by female Syrian refugees is projected onto the wall, with their powerful chanting reminding us of the devastating effects of war. A rare first edition of Shakespeare’s ‘Troilus and Cressida’ from 1509 sits tucked away in a corner: don’t miss it. More recently, Brad Pitt’s smouldering face is plastered onto a poster of the 2004 film Troy. Classic.
The selection of visual art on display is hypnotic. Thomas Banks’ statue of Achilles’ mother dipping him by the heel into the River Styx is incredibly moving, given it was based on Banks’ own wife and child. Paintings of William Blake, Edward Burne-Jones, William Morris and other greats feature alongside quotes from Troy-inspired literature printed onto the walls. Cleverly, the exhibition compares the Trojan War with more recent warfare, displaying, for example, items from the First World War; the Trojan myth was used by soldiers to justify their sacrifices. The signature piece of the exhibition is the 1825 statue of ‘The Wounded Achilles’ by Filippo Albacini, which is visible from all angles. The anguished face of Achilles seems emblematic of the pain of war.
The exhibition’s conclusion is on a feminist note, depicting the role of women in the Trojan War. This is something that has already featured in recent literature (for example, Atwood’s Penelopiad and Barker’s The Silence of the Girls).The beguiling, bulging eyes of Queen Clytemnestra painted by John Collier stare down from the wall. Interestingly, she is shown to be acting with a ‘male’ violence and is painted in an androgynous way. If anyone can bring Troy into 21st Century sexual politics, it’s the Victorian painters.
The final message is a powerful one: a model of Achilles’ shield gleams in gold. Depicting scenes of harmony in its design whilst being an instrument of war, the shield shows how “peace predominates, but war is ever present”, to quote the exhibition. Be prepared for the last item of the exhibition. The rest of the exhibition is rather dark, so I was nearly blinded by Spencer Finch’s 2019 The Shield of Achilles. I’m sure this was the intention, though, with the darkness of war contrasting with the underlying promise of peace or something; even if it took me several minutes to remove shield-shaped spots from my vision.
The main surprise of this exhibition is that it is not confined to Troy: most of the artefacts shown are not even from Troy itself, but are examples of how the story has inspired generations to follow. The title of the exhibition, Troy: Myth and Reality, is aptly chosen, with people throughout history using myths to mirror contemporary, real events. The first room of the exhibition encapsulates this idea, with Caro’s sculpture centering not around Troy, but around the conflict in Bosnia he witnessed. For me, the burnt pots shown in this room are a symbol of this cycle of war, with them surviving the Trojan War, only to be burnt millennia later in bombing of Berlin during the Second World War. It seems the world has not changed that much after all.