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The music of our history, revisited in new exhibit

Almost 400 items – some never seen before - are featured in a collaboration between the CaixaFòrum and the Louvre, with loans from as far as New York, Mexico and Athens


08 February 2018 03:30 PM


ACN | Barcelona

It’s hard to overstate the importance of music to the human experience. This is not a new phenomenon: in fact, it’s well-recorded throughout ancient civilizations to now. And now, the way that melodies have moved and motivated throughout history are on display in a new international CaixaFòrum exhibit.

Open until May 6, 2018, it’s called ‘The music of antiquity’ and it comprises 373 pieces, some that are being seen for the very first time due to their fragility. The display takes the visitor through three thousand years of musical history, with 278 items from the prestigious Louvre Museum.

Four great civilizations from collections around the world

Other objects have traveled from as far as the National Archeological Museum of Naples, the National Library of France, the Capitolini Museums, the National Roman Museum, the National Roman Art Museum of Mèrida, the Centrale Montemartini, the National Archeological Museum in Athens, and the Metropolitan Museum of New York.

From Mesopotamian seals to Roman Empire reliefs, from Ancient Egyptian papyrus to Ancient Greek pottery, the museum shows how music is a universal language that has crossed centuries, overcome conflicts and wars and connected cultures. It focuses on the richness of music in the four great civilizations: Egypt, the Ancient Far East, Greece and the Roman Empire.

Orpheus Mosaic

But of course, no music exhibit is complete without audio. Throughout the display, museum-goers will be able to listen to reconstructions of how ancient instruments sounded, Sumerian and Greek origin myths for sounds and instruments, as well as the oldest known song in the world.

  • "Ultimately, music is much more than just music"

    Sibylle Emerit · curator of exhibit

Ancient cultures saw music differently

Still, one of the eight exhibit curators, Sibylle Emerit, urged museum-goers to “interest (themselves) in this ancient musical culture in its totality,” adding that the exhibit’s objective is to display “the richness of ancient music” but also to “show that music leaves a lot of archeological testimony.” Indeed, when talking about all the elements that went into the musical world of the past, Emerit stated that “ultimately, music is much more than just music.”

Emerit, who is also a researcher for the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris, also spoke of the ways that music was experienced in the past, from foreign musicians being invited to court as a display of royal power, to using it to communicate orders on the battlefield, to playing a role in seduction, even being used to protect the birth of a newborn. “Through themes that are still significant to us, today,” the curator detailed that the exhibit aims to show “that these ancient cultures had a different way of seeing and interpreting music.”

Comic actor with tympanos

Regards the never-before-seen items, the instruments that are thousands of years old, Emit – also a former member of the French Archeological Institute for Eastern Archeology in Cairo - said that “she doesn’t think this will be repeated” because of how fragile the objects are, adding that the Louvre lending them out is “unheard of.” “It’s an enormous opportunity to have them here,” she concluded.

The thread that connects

As in this exhibit, music also served as a link to the past, a connecting thread to one’s history. For instance, the CaixaFòrum website explains that the Renaissance, with its focus on humanity and the arts, exalted music from the Greek and Roman Empires. Napoleon’s campaigns brought the music of Ancient Egypt back to the Western world. And then, with the 19th century, came musical archeology, a field in its own right to retrace the steps of this powerful medium throughout time. 

There will be a conference on opening day, Friday February 9, held by the exhibit curators, to give you the perfect introduction to the exhibit. Then, in March, visitors can enjoy two projections, focused on one of the most significant forms of entertainment until fairly recently, often dealing with the ancient world: the opera. The CaixaFòrum will show both Aïda by Verdi on March 4, and Norma by Bellini on March 25


  • Paintings at the CaixaForum exhibit, including 'Anacreon, Bacchus and Love' by Jean-Léon Gerome on February 8 2018 (by Guillem Roset)

  • Paintings at the CaixaForum exhibit, including 'Anacreon, Bacchus and Love' by Jean-Léon Gerome on February 8 2018 (by Guillem Roset)