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Treasures from ancient Greece on display in Barcelona exhibit

The display showcases 170 exclusive items from the British Museum, including one of the seven wonders of the ancient world


01 December 2017 12:23 PM


ACN | Barcelona

Ancient Greece, the pinnacle of athleticism, comes to Barcelona with the exhibition ‘Agon! Competition in Ancient Greece.’ Held at the CaixaForum until February 18, 2018, the display is co-presented by the British Museum, and will be the first time that some of the pieces will be viewable outside of London. This includes one of the seven wonders of the ancient world - a mausoleum fragment from the Greek city of Halicarnassus, never before loaned by the British Museum. And this is but one of the artifacts on display. 

View of the 'Agon' exhibit in the CaixaForum co-produced by the British Museum on November 23 2017 (by Guillem Roset)

The exhibit is comprised of 170 objects, many of which are masterpieces from the British Museum, some of which haven’t been seen for “a very long time,” and were restored especially for the occasion, explained the exhibit curator, Peter Higgs. The artifacts range from playthings like dice and balls used by children 2,200 years ago, to a marble statue from the 1st century AD.

“The narrative is really about competition,” explained the curator of the exhibit. This is what the name ‘Agon’ means, in ancient Greek, and the experience takes the museum-goer back its competitive spirit. This was a society that believed that competitiveness was inherent to human nature, and that believed it transmitted positive, innovative, and dynamic strength. Indeed, in ancient Greece, games and contests represented a collective ideal and was an element of social cohesion.

  • “We show competition in everyday life and death, how people competed very much how we do today”

    Peter Higgs · Curator of the exhibit 

Visitors are greeted by Nike, the goddess of victory who connected the world of the dead with that of the gods, and invited into viewing a collection that highlights the idea that the Greeks “aspired to achieve” excellence and the balance of body and spirit in sports through philosophy, art, and science.

An artifact from the 'Agon' exhibit in the CaixaForum co-produced by the British Museum on November 23 2017 (by Guillem Roset)

Yet, competitiveness also bled into more “negative” aspects, as Higgs qualifies them, like warfare. Indeed, Greek society lived in almost constant conflict with their neighbours, visible in the exhibition through the many renditions of battle. Life expectancy in ancient Greece was quite short, so competitiveness wasn’t only seen in people’s everyday life and in how they “dressed, presented their home, in the activities they did,” but also in their death, which was an “important” aspect in society.

The best preserved and most important

Indeed, “perhaps the most important object” in the exhibition, according to Higgs, is one of the slabs from the frieze of the mausoleum at Halicarnassus. On it, visitors can see a depiction of a battle between the Greeks and the Amazons. This was one of the ancient Seven Wonders of the World, and the curator disclosed that “it’s the best preserved” of all the frieze panels, and has never before been loaned by the British Museum.

Higgs added that a “very important piece” is the bronze head of an athlete, one of the rare few that survived being melted down in later times. “This may have been a victor statue,” speculated Higgs, set up to perhaps honor the winner of games like the Olympics. The curator notes important details such as the bruises and scars depicted on the statue, along with headwear to keep other competitors from pulling the athlete’s hair.

‘Heroes and Myths’

There are more than 100,000 objects in the collection of the Biritish Museum, considered as one of the largest and most complete collections from the classic world. Higgs explained that the process to select items to be loaned out is rigorous, as is their packing and transport. This is the second joint exhibition the two museums organized, after an agreement signed in 2015.

The exhibition is divided into eight sections: ‘Nike, goddess of victory,’ ‘Games in Childhood,’ ‘Athletic Competitions,’ ‘Musical and theatrical competitions,’ ‘War: the highest confrontation,’ ‘Heroes and myths,’ and ‘Social Rivalry in Everyday Life and Death.’ This also includes a program of activities for all audiences including conferences and concerts.   


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  • A slab from the frieze of the mausuleum of Halicarnassus depicting a battle between the Greeks and the Amazons (by Guillem Roset)