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Three Expositions in Paris


One of the Louvre mosaics from Bishapur. Photo Marco Prins.
One of the Louvre mosaics from Bishapur
Paris offers many delights to the visitor, and at the moment, there are three more:
  1. an exhibition of Sasanian art,
  2. an exhibition of Thracian objects from recent excavations in Bulgaria,
  3. and -best of all- an exhibition of objects from the Afghan National Museum in Kabul, which were believed to be lost but miraculously survived the difficult years of war.
I visited them in the last days of December 2006, and here is my review.

The Sasanians


First, Les Perses Sassanides. Fastes d'un Empire Oublié, which is in the Musée Cernuschi at the Avenue Velasquez 7. The objects are from several museums all over the world, although -unfortunately- those from the Hermitage never arrived in Paris, so that buying the catalog (45 euro) is to be recommended.

After a small anteroom with some written information on Sasanian history, the first room contains all kinds of objects from the royal propaganda, like dishes with hunting scenes and full-scale copies of the rock reliefs from Taq-e Bostan, which I hope will one day be exposed near the original ones, which can not be studied from so close. In the second room you will see a/o intaglios, coins, cameos, glass, and terracottas, and in the third room you will see the Louvre mosaics from Bishapur and weapons. The objects I liked best were the royal mantles. I had never realized that ancient clothing could survive so well.

This exposition is certainly worth a visit, but it must be noted that taking photos is not allowed. I sincerely regret this, because I like to study objects later, at my leisure. When I offered to pay for an authorization -which is possible in nearly every museum- the kind young lady at the entrance made a phone call to her superior, but she had to inform us that she could not obtain what I needed. This is problematic, because buying a catalog is not a substitute for taking pictures. After all, the details you want to see again are never the details selected by professional photographers. I will return to this point below.

Thracian gold

It is easy to walk from the Sasanian exhibition to the next one, L'Or des Thraces at the Musée Jacquemart-André (Boulevard Hausmann 158). Its claim to "illustrate the great Thracian civilization", is exaggerated. As one could have expected from an exposition called "Gold of the Thracians", this is in fact an exhibition of artworks from tombs in Bulgaria - nothing more or less. In other words, the organizers have reduced "the great Thracian civilization" to "art". Simple questions like "who were the goldsmiths?" or "is Herodotus a reliable author?" remain unanswered. On the other hand, an attempt was made to explain the principles of Thracian religion, which I found very enlightening.
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A winged horse from Vazovo (Bulgaria), Historical Museum of Razgrad. Photo Marco Prins.
A winged horse from Vazovo (Bulgaria)

Some objects worthy of note: the Borovo treasure, from the territory of the Bessi, consists of several lovely rhytons, and was apparently a gift by king Cotys I to a local chief. The main item from the Letnitsa treasure is a horse harness consisting of small, decorated pieces. There were also objects related to the Odryssean king Seuthes III, which were excavated in the Valley of the Thracian Kings (where systematic excavations started in 2004), such as splendid helmets and the king's gold crown.

What I like best was the Rogozen treasure, which consists of no less than 164 pieces and is usually on display in the Museum of Vratsa. The phials, jugs, and goblets represent art styles from the mid-fifth to mid-fourth century. They were buried in a hurry, and probably were the complete treasure of one noble family that lost power to Philip of Macedonia or his son Alexander the Great. Among the objects are representations that are surprisingly similar to the lion/bull-fight so well-known from Achaemenid art. I would have loved to learn more about this.

Like so many museums, the Jacquemart-André has decided to expose the objects in dark rooms, in which only the objects are illuminated. This creates a problem, however. Because much information is offered in excellent, small guidebooks, there are always people reading in front of the displays. Worse, the rooms are too small for the many visitors, and it is impossible to study the objects at one's leisure. I left the museum a bit dissatisfied, although I was very happy that the friendly guards allowed us to take photos for personal use.

Afghanistan

It takes about half an hour to walk from the Musée Jacquemart-André to the Musée Guimet on the Place de Jena. The exhibition Afghanistan, les Trésors Retrouvés has received much publicity and you see leaflets everywhere in Paris. And rightly so, because the Musée Guimet offers a probably unique chance to see the objects from the war-plagued country to those of us who can not visit the Archaeological Museum of Kabul.

One of the finds from Ai Khanum. Musée Guimet, Paris (France). Photo Marco Prins.
Cybele dish from Ai Khanum

The first room is devoted to the objects from Ai Khanum, starting with the famous Cybele dish. You will also see a gargoyle, the capital of a column, the Clearchus inscription (smaller than I expected), the sun dial, antefixes, and other objects you have until now only known from books. There's also a column from Herat. The second room contains lots of gold objects from Tillia Tepe, and the third room is devoted to Begram (Alexandria in the Caucasus). I was surprised to see how delicate the objects from this last site were.

I got the impression that the Museum Guimet is overreaching itself with this exhibition, which -at least during the days between Christmas and Old Year- attracts so many people that it is no longer possible to study the objects. If you manage to reach them at all, because you will first have to join a queue at the Place de Jena, which lasted -when we were there- about 40 minutes. Then, we could buy a ticket, and learned that the queue to enter the exhibition room would take about 40 to 120 minutes; it was impossible to buy tickets for the next day. After some time in the second line, we could enter the first room, but there was a third one (45 minutes) to see the gold objects.

Unlike my companion, I do not think that my hours in the museum were a waste of time: I saw objects any student of Antiquity simply must see. Serious scholars of the ancient Near East have no excuse for ignoring this exposition. However, neither of us enjoyed our stay in the overcrowded museum.

Another unpleasant surprise was that taking pictures was allowed in the first room only, a rule the guards apparently did not feel very comfortable with, because the lady who addressed us in the Begram room allowed my compagnion to finish a photo first, before she kindly explained that there were unsolved copyright issues with the Kabul Museum.

There is something wrong here. I understand that the Afghan archaeologists need money and want to guard their copyright, but the museum ticket already contains one euro for the reconstruction of the Museum of Kabul. It would have been better to double this sum and allow people to take pictures. Their photos are probably the best guarantee that more people will be interested. Copyright matters can never be an excuse for museums to disregard their first and foremost task: to enable visitors to see objects. A museum that obstructs study, has something to explain.
© Jona Lendering for
Livius.Org, 2006
Revision: 30 Dec. 2006
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