Exhibiting ancient jewelry

The popes have been collecting art for centuries, and from at least the 16th c. visitors to Rome made a special point of stopping at the Vatican to see the collections of ancient and contemporary art. One important area of collecting has been ancient Roman and Etruscan art, including jewelry.

Why would the center of the Roman Catholic world have such a focus on these areas? In part because 1) this is Rome, 2) the papacy is in Rome, and 3) Early Christian art developed in the Late Antique period, from around 200 to around 400 CE. Jesus was born sometime around the year 1 BCE/CE, but there was no “Christian art” to speak of until Christians gained a political presence in the major cities of the Roman empire, including Rome. Christian artists and patrons relied on established symbols and iconography when creating “Christian” art. For example, you will see many winged figures in ancient Roman art; these are sometimes cupids, sometimes a genius (spirit) figure that Christians developed into angels.

So why would the popes be so interested in collecting objects from ancient Rome? And from the even more ancient Etruscan civilization? (The Etruscans were a powerful people who lived in the center of the Italian peninsula between ca. 800 and 100 BCE, and co-existed with the Romans once the Romans conquered Etruscan cities after the sixth century BCE.)

Collecting Roman and Etruscan objects is one way Renaissance popes demonstrated their sincere interests in understanding Christian history.  It was also a way to demonstrate that Christianity conquered Rome, as Rome had conquered the Etruscans.

The Etruscans were among the finest goldsmiths in the ancient world. Indeed, their exquisite gold jewelry has seldom been equaled. The Vatican Museum is fortunate in having some of the most important Etruscan objects in stone, bronze, and gold. Here, you can see how they exhibit gold earrings next to what survives from a stone sculpture of a woman’s face…the woman is wearing the type of earring in the collection. All of these objects were found in tombs.


I’ll have a second post on the Vatican’s Etruscan collection. I’d like for you to think about how these objects can be exhibited.

How do we exhibit objects from an ancient culture that demonstrates both respect for that culture and teaches the public about that culture?

Here’s a link to the Vatican Museums’ page on this collection of gold jewelry.

28 thoughts on “Exhibiting ancient jewelry

  1. You definitely want to have some sort of visual idea in your mind on how you want to display the objects. Do you want to center the piece in a large room or give it its own case? If jewelry is shinny or made of gold like in the picture above, visitors will be drawn to it aesthetically because our society places value on gold as done in the past. If you have a large object, such as a large sculpture or the Temple of Dendur, then you want to bring into consideration spacing of the room you place it in and how will the room emphasize rather than downplay. In our reading, Civilizing Ritual, it is said that “the isolation of objects for visual contemplation has remained one of the outstanding features of the aesthetic museum.” One of the Metropolitan’s casing methods is the artifact against a white surface, so a neutral colored surface does not take away from the object it is displaying. Other factors also come into play, such as high or low ceilings, how close are the pieces, how relevant to each other are they. To exhibit objects respectfully and educationally, we must consider the relationship we want visitors to form with the art and how we display it will affect their thoughts on it.

    • I agree that is is important to have a visual conception of a layout that you would like to have for your collection. Catering to you building is important, and making use of the space as well. You have to consider all physical elements of the building when conceptualizing a plan for displaying a collection.

  2. I think that to properly exhibit an ancient object that respects the culture and is also informative, you need to provide background that tells how important the object was. You should say what it was used for and possibly even display how it was worn on the person or what it would look like to be used. Similar to the statue with the earring, providing context to how the ancient culture used these objects puts the viewer in the mindset of someone in the culture. A display with just a bracelet and context would not be nearly as effective as a display with a mannequin arm showing how it is worn.

    • How would one provide context properly, what would be some strategies used to convey the pieces history clearly to the audience? Considering what we have learned about people with disabilities, how can a museum cater to them ?

      • Curators could help provide background knowledge by creating plaques or displays that inform visitors about the artifact and the history behind it. Museums can cater to individuals with disabilities by providing them with comfortable transportation throughout the museum (elevators, ramps, etc.)

      • Of course for some works of art it will be very difficult to find information. For those moments it is important to lay out what is known, then allow visitors to make assumptions of the history of it. For those with disabilities providing alternatives, like recordings or touchable sources is an option.

  3. Understanding jewelry, in some cases, you can understand resources that were available, you can get an idea of the hierarchy or social caste system in which that society operated under. Just the mere fact that we admire the pieces enough to display them is a sign of respect. we are giving the object power by doing so. By creating a display that follows the theme, time period, and context of pieces, the museum respects the piece. Having the correct in formation as well as context allows people to fully understand and have as much respect for the item as the museum does.

    • I really like your points. I think some reasons people like to view these artifacts is to perhaps get inspiration or ideas as to how those of the culture view the world and beauty.

    • I agree with you on the importance of context. Jewelry is like pottery: they could come ancient traditional practices, or they could have a practical use, or they might have been to display beauty or power. It could have been made for all three of these reasons, but if you don’t understand the context and you just place how you want it with only your reasons in mind, and not give the artifact respect by ignoring why it was created, it just becomes stuff you put on a shelf. That being said I also think that when it comes to historical artifacts there should also be a textual reference viewers could fall back to to fill in the blank on it’s purpose. This could be a frame of text next to the display or for a less invasive option there could be pamphlets or brochures viewers could pick that could give context to the pieces which they could read at their leisure.

    • I hadn’t thought about how just displaying something as art is a mark of respect but I think that is a really good point.

      • I completely agree that jewelry can be utilized as a good indicator of the status of the society from which it has been saved. It can indicate not only what resources were available; but the social standing of the families who obtained these items. I think a good example of art indicating social status is the Faberge exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Although the monarchy to which the collection had been allocated was disbanded, the Faberge exhibit still provides an example of the extravagance of the Imperial Age in Russia.

  4. One of the articles we could analyze was on how to exhibit African art. I took away from that reading that it is important to put forth all the information possible on the object. Some visitors to the museum come with a wide range of prior knowledge that could also be wrong. Correcting and adding to anything they know is important and might make them want to return to learn more. How the art is displayed relies a lot to the visitor also. Placing it as a certain height or next to other works allows the visitor to look for any comparisons between the two. The best way to respect the art and culture is comes from is in telling the truth about it to the best of the museums ability.

    • In this case there would need to be background explaining the small details and symbols inlayed in the pieces, such as the Cupid example. This could be something that not everyone in the general public may be aware of and is something that would have to be explained, as it brings another reading or interpretation of the piece.

  5. When trying to sensitively display anything from a different culture or time, it is important to give the audience the facts, without passing judgement. It is important for the viewer to see the object and understand how it was used and why it might have been made. It is important not insinuate that these items are ‘curiosities’ made by people ‘less civilized’ than ourselves. We will never be able to fully understand the culture and the works on display, having never experienced living in that culture or time. It is also important to remember that these items were not made to be in a museum, so we need to try to understand the context from which they come.

    • I like your point about people thinking past civilizations are “less civilized”. As a counter point, I would like to point out we also need to not romanticize the past. I think this tends to happen with Roman civilization, especially since many people know that some cities had running water, but many images that are presented to audiences are not the full picture. I remember watching a movie with my professor and she was like, why isn’t there any poop or blood in the road. There is butchers storefront right there!

  6. I think a good connection to this was the creation of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, as well as the Holocaust Museum, both of which are in DC. These are examples of being able to showcase a culture, while also teaching the visitors about it. Regarding the popes acquiring all of the Ancient Roman and Etruscan artifacts, it demonstrates their desire to connect to the past cultures, as well as also possibly showcasing their individual wealth?

    • This is very true. I think that especially in the digital age today it is very for easy for different cultures to cross paths. Being able to understand another culture is crucial for appreciating their history, art, and other important things in their culture.

  7. A way that an exhibit can show respect towards a culture and teach outsiders about the culture is to educate viewers. The history behind a piece is important, but it is also important to understand why a piece was made or in the case of the jewelry, who wore it and why. If a viewer has a better big picture understanding of a culture, they can appreciate artifacts or works of art in a deeper way. It might seem unusual that the Vatican would collect Roman jewelry from the past, but once you learn that there was no christian art specifically and that these pieces were believed to be around during the time of Jesus, it makes sense as to why the Vatican would have in interest in these pieces.

    • I do agree with, I would also add that the Vatican would like to have them because its their attempt to emulate the ideals of the Roman Empire, most notably the ideas of uniting all citizens under one Roman banner, all those under Rome are Roman. The Church wants, or a least wanted, to unite everybody to unite under one banner of the Vatican, thus the inclusion of Roman works, specifically jewelry.

  8. Specifically speaking about jewelry, how its presented is directly related to the objects, size, intricacy and importance. Famous and large pieces of jewelry such as the hope diamond is put on prominent display while one simple roman ring will be among many others giving the viewer an overview of the artwork.
    What objects are shown in a museum is intrinsically linked with the ideas and concepts that the museum is trying to present. They will of course want to try and draw the viewer into the most incredible works which might be challenging if the work is small, so the placement of the object in the room is of utmost importance. This usually leads to the work being displayed in the middle of the room. In terms of size that really isn’t a big problem. It is a natural phenomenon that our eyes are drawn to the largest object in the room and we inspect it, or a least I do, out of sheer curiosity. In terms of this subject matter I think it is important that the museum first decide what sort of message it wants to send. I think it is important to show objects of the past, but at the same time it is important that the context of these works is provided through plaque cards, videos or other means and to celebrate the accomplishments of these past civilizations while also pointing out their flaws. That in itself is the importance of history: a lesson from the past for the generations of the future, which is why I believe museums are so important.

  9. Jewelry is one form of art that is not often considered when thinking about art, but think about how significant it is to certain cultures! In many cultures, jewelry is often given at a significant point in ones life, or passed down from generation to generation. Jewelry can be found in many forms- Faberge eggs could technically be considered jewelry due to the extensive amount of jewels found in the work! The most commonly thought of forms of jewelry are the ones we in fact wear, but even the crowns of kings and queens could be considered an ornation of sorts. It is my opinion that these are also incredibly important to protect and share with generations to come.

  10. One of our readings, on how to exhibit art from Africa, encouraged me to think about how art can be adressed without context. I’ve noticed that many contemporary artists will often choose to forgo an attribution tag or biography in order to provide the viewer with a completely unfettered and direct representation of the work. However, I believe it is of paramount importance that we provide context, particularly historical context for non-modern works, because it allows the viewer to envisage the world in which the art was created and what it was intended to mean to viewers at the time.

    • I agree with your point that for older works context should be provided. without it someone might think that a piece of jewelry that was over a thousand years old could have been made only 50 years ago without context being provided.

  11. I think giving a brief history somewhere in the exhibit about the culture that the pieces come from would be extremely useful. I think for pieces that are much older they should be behind glass or rope in some fashion to protect the works from being damaged by the viewers.

  12. Like you mentioned above, the Christians took over Roman religion when Constantine had his “vision” of victory before battle, and thus solidified Christianity as the religion of Rome. I think the answer for why sites of religious importance would display Etruscan, and Roman pieces is simply a matter of history and context. Christian history is Roman history. You cannot tell the story of how Christianity became to be without Rome. So simply put these items are not simply just Etruscan or Roman, but also Christian as history would show.

  13. Objects from a different culture should be displayed with a brief history of the culture. Jewelry in particular should be displayed within the social context in which they were used. In this specific, jewelry should be displayed with a plaque giving the information on who wore that specific piece, or at least what social class they may have belonged to, and what the specific kind of jewelry and/or the grade of the jewelry represented.

  14. I had the opportunity to go to an exhibit in the summer of 2016 that seems to have been set up similarly. The exhibit was at the National Geographic Museum in DC. The exhibit was called “The Greeks: Agamemnon to Alexander the Great,” and was described as “A stunning exhibition celebrating 5,000 years of Greek culture.” I went to this exhibit with my dad because he loves all things Greek. It was really cool because a lot of the artifacts there had never before left Greece. I’d say that almost half of the artifacts on display were jewelry. They did a very good job of setting up the displays to be educational but still respectful. For instance, there was one case that held something similar to a vest that was adorned with many metal buttons, both silver and gold. Above the vest laid a necklace and a huge pair of elaborate earrings, and down by the sides of the vest were many bracelets. The plaque explained that all these items were found in the same tomb adorning a woman of obviously high social status. So basically what I’m saying is that it is important to include context, but also just how you organize the exhibit can say a lot.

  15. It is fascinating how the museum decided to display the objects, including the stone sculpture around the jewelry add a touch a femininity. It makes all of the objects come together in a sense. This can be appreciated by people with out even knowing the history of the objects.
    The history of the objects and how they relate to the papacy is the real kicker. Although these objects were made in a time when Christianity wasn’t widely believed they still came from the roots of it. I think a history of where the jewelry was found and why it relates to the museum would be nice to have on a plaque next to the objects.

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