Exhibiting Strange Tendencies

A new exhibition at the Ashmolean which questions the experience of museum visiting.

'Pompey was decapitated in 48BC by a power-crazed Egyptian Eunuch on the Exotic Shores of the Nile Delta' reads the positively tabloid-style caption accompanying a bust wrapped in opaque plastic, lying next to an axe and oozing fake blood. Nearby two identical plastic models of Venus are labelled respectively, 'Do Not Touch' and 'Please Replace After Use'.

What kind of an exhibition is this? You may well ask. The answer is an exhibition, currently running at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, that sets out to question the experience of museum visiting, and the underlying assumptions behind both the presentation of material on display – and how it is received.

The? Exhibition? (as it really is called) is the work of two Cambridge Classics dons, Mary Beard and John Henderson. It reflects their particular subject background only in so far as they feel that museums are one of the few places where non-academics are able to have contact with the classical period and, therefore, how this period is presented is crucial in encouraging and sustaining an interest in it. Consequently, Beard and Henderson have used the classical period as a medium for experimentation, although the emphasis and intent of their exhibition is to look at the much broader issues of presentation and reception of museums in general.

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