How to display the past….. Part 2: Collecting

Posted: February 28, 2013 - 15:51 , by ROM

In my last post  I mentioned that various factors (sometimes pure chance) shaped a museum collection, and so affected the look of a public display.  Here, I illustrate this by exploring the collection history of one particularly famous (even infamous) object.  This ivory and gold figurine has had a long and chequered history in the ROM that has seen her fall from being an iconic piece in the collection, a treasure of Bronze Age Aegean art, to languishing in a store-room, generally thought to be a fake.

The ROM's 'Minoan Goddess' (931.21.1)

        The ROM's 'Minoan Goddess' (931.21.1)

In November 1930 J.H. Iliffe, Keeper of the Classical Collection at the ROM, received a letter from Charles Seltman, University Lecturer in Classics at University of Cambridge who had often supplied the museum with Greek & Roman pieces, offering them “the finest Cretan work-of-art Extant”. Within a few months Charles T. Currelly, the ROM Director, had agreed to the then huge amount of £2,750 (paid in instalments) to own the tiny female figurine – less than 20cm tall.  Thought to date to between 1600-1550 BC and to come from Minoan Crete, her clothing suggested she was an acrobat, specifically a bull-leaper.


In the words of Iliffe “she is really a wonderful possession and will add no mean lustre to our Greek Department.”  Her importance to the ROM was that she would help to establish it as a rival the other great museums in America and Britain, although it was still only 15 years old.

One of her attractions was that she was something new in the field of antiquities.  The whole Minoan civilisation had only been uncovered in 1900 when Sir Arthur Evans began excavating the ‘palace’ of Knossos on Crete.  She was also admired and authenticated by experts.  Evans himself was the first to publish the figurine in the Illustrated London News in July 1931, and again in volume 4 of his huge book The Palace of Minos (1921-1935).  It was Evans who declared that she was not just a bull-leaper but a goddess, naming her ‘Our Lady of Sports’.

Best of all, the figurine was unique.  She was better preserved than the few other known Minoan ivory figurines, and while they were either full-skirted goddesses or male acrobats, she was the only surviving female bull-leaper. A wall-painting from Knossos showed scenes of bull leaping, perhaps including women.    

A reproduction of the 'Bull Leaper' fresco from the Palace at Knossos, Crete

The ‘Bull-Leaper’ fresco from Knossos, restored by Emile Giliéron père

Too good to be true….

But the very fact that she was (and is still) unique soon began to raise doubts as to whether she was genuine.  While individual ivory limbs from acrobats were excavated at Knossos, the ROM figurine had no certain archaeological findspot.  Instead her collection history was unclear, with different people saying slightly different things.  According to Evans she was once part of a private collection on Crete, while other sources said that she was “believed to come” from Knossos, before being sold in Athens and then reaching the art market in Paris.  Other figurines (both of ivory and stone) with a similarly vague collection history, which had appeared on the art market about 10 years earlier, were already believed to be fakes.  Charles Seltman himself had sold one of these figurines to the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, in 1926. 

Evans’ discovery and recreation of the Minoan civilisation, his imaginative reconstructions, and his tireless publicising through talks and publications led to a fashion for all things Minoan in the early decades of the 20th century.  The demand for Minoan art meant that replicas were made, often by the same Cretan workmen who were excavating for Evans. Forgeries were also produced based on the finds from Knossos, and perhaps even using ancient ivory discovered there.  One Cretan workman is said to have admitted on his deathbed to running an industry in Minoan fakes.

However all this evidence is circumstantial, and even modern scientific tests have not been able to settle the issue for the suspect figurines.  In the ROM, the goddess was displayed for many years as a Minoan figurine dating to around 1600 BC.  In 2001, Kenneth Lapatin explored the history of the Minoan figurines and condemned them all as early 20th century fakes.  The ROM goddess remained on display together with a copy of Lapatin’s article, so that visitors could see the debate for themselves, but when the Bronze Age Aegean gallery was reopened after renovations in 2005, she was left out so that the limited gallery space could be used for unquestionably genuine Minoan artefacts.

The ROM goddess is just one object in the collection, but it illustrates some of the different factors at work in collecting ancient material in the late 19th and early 20th century.  Most museums will have similar stories, as objects moved through private collections and dealers to arrive in the museum collection.  The history of this piece has been further complicated by the doubts about its authenticity, and this raises the question of what should happen now to something that was so expensive to buy, yet is controversial to display.  At the moment she is on temporary display in the Roman gallery with some other fake antiquities.

Or is she?

This story of the ‘goddess’ is nothing new, and I had believed that she was now proved to be fake, but while researching I realised that this was not the case.  In addition to the weak evidence against her – damned by association, rather than because of anything concrete – from a technical point of view it is difficult to see her as an early 20th century creation.  The condition of the ivory (at least in places) apparently suggests that the raw material is now at least several centuries old, and was carved while the ivory was still ‘fresh’ – so it probably wasn’t ancient ivory carved in 20th century.  But the Minoan civilisation (and therefore the fashion for Minoan objects, and creation of fakes) was not discovered until the beginning of the 20th century, so it can’t date to the 17th, 18th or even 19th centuries, when Roman sculpture, for example, was being ‘imaginatively restored’ or faked. 

We’re left with a puzzle.  Is the whole object a 20th century fake carved in modern ivory?  Or a 20th century fake carved in ancient (possible even Minoan) ivory? In which case what about the technical evidence of the ivory itself?

Or is the figure genuinely ancient, at least in parts?  It could be a ‘pastiche’ of several Minoan ivory fragments joined together and interspersed with some modern restoration and modern ivory, all covered by the gold clothes.

Looking to the future

At the moment the obvious scientific tests to date ivory are too destructive and would probably be inconclusive because of the various conservation and restoration treatments the figurine has undergone.  So it’s time to get creative.  Conservators and other museum specialists are being asked to join in with this ongoing detective story. Let’s see what happens.