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UCL Culture Blog


News and musings from the UCL Culture team


Who’s Great?

By Debbie J Challis, on 25 March 2011

The answer is Alexander, or more properly Alexander III of Macedon. In February I accompanied the Friends of the Petrie Museum to Holland to see two exhibitions on Alexander the Great at the Hermitage Museum and Allard Pearson museum in Amsterdam.

Although I work at the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, I am a rogue classicist with an unhealthy interest in Greek Egypt. My partner in crime, John J Johnston, and myself had already planned to theme our LGBT History Month for 2011 around Alexander the Great in 2010. We were then very excited to see that two exhibitions were planned around Alexander in Amsterdam. Jan Picton, Secretary of the Friends of the Petrie Museum, suggested that I tag along on a Friends trip to assist with information.

We also visited the Leiden National Museum of Archaeology where two Buddhist heads (see above) from Afghanistan in the ‘Greek style’ reminded me how far flung Alexander’s empire and Hellenic influence spread in his eastern campaign.

The largest exhibition on Alexander the Great was at the newly opened Hermitage Museum on the Amstel in Amsterdam. The Hermitage is a ‘satellite’ museum of the larger museum in St Petersburg. The exhibition began with examining the legacy and legend of Alexander, particularly in art and decorative objects before looking at artifacts from the period and related to the different regions through which Alexander and his army traveled.

Many of the objects were stunningly beautiful and the exhibition was well lit and presented. Of most interest for me was to to see so much from excavations around the Black Sea area and parts of northern Greece and the Balkans – objects that I imagine have rarely left Russia. The use of the Alexander myth and legacy by the Russian royal family – Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, down to the last Tsar – was also eye opening. Little was said in the exhibition about provenance and archaeological records for many of the objects, though the catalogue had some more information. The photographer Erwin Olaf created this striking exhibition poster.

The university museum, the Allard Pearson, had an exhibition on Alexander and the Greeks in Egypt which was very pertinent to the collections of the Petrie Museum. The exhibition was much smaller in scale but asked more critical questions about Alexander, his legacy and how we perceive the Greeks in Egypt today.

I had only recently visited many of the sites related to Alexander in Macedonia Greece and was struck by how the tombs of the Macedonian kings felt much more ‘Egyptian’ in their homage to royalty than ‘Greek’. The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford is hosting another exhibition around Alexander the Great in April to August this year – do go and then explore related objects in the Petrie Museum at our special late opening on 7 July.

Debbie Challis

PS. It was also really really cold in Amsterdam as you can see from these Friends looking frost-bitten and waiting for the museum to open.

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