Exhibition Review: Ancient Greeks: Athletes, Warriors and Heroes

The glories of a bygone era reflected in artefacts of sport, arts, warfare and politics.

In a time when international travel feels like a distant dream, the WA Museum Boola Bardip’s exhibition Ancient Greeks: Athletes, Warriors and Heroes, on tour from the British Museum, is a welcome treat, a much-appreciated opportunity to envision a different time and place from the doldrums of a continent once more in a series of lockdowns and travel restrictions. 

Featuring a range of Greek sculpture, armour, jewellery, vases and sporting artefacts, the narrative of the exhibition is of the values of excellence, competition, and achievement against all odds, ideals held dear to the very fabric of the lives of the Ancient Greeks. They’re also the most well-known to contemporary audiences, and the exhibition successfully uses these common threads of knowledge as an access point for visitors to gain deeper insights into the rich and complex culture of the Ancient Greeks. 

Dramatically lit showcases, towering marble statues and a few unexpected touches, including animations of Greek figures running, hunting and drinking projected on replica vases and amphorae bring the exhibition to life and create intrigue for all ages. The exhibition focuses on the central values of Ancient Greek society – competition, glory and heroism, values that continue to play defining roles in contemporary societies across the globe, including modern Australia. This ongoing relevance echoes in different ways throughout the exhibition, from the adoration of public figures in sports and entertainment, to an obsession with body image. One life-sized sculpture of an unknown athlete, based off an original bronze work by Polykleitos, flexes and poses his muscular form. This bodily ideal is in fact physically impossible to achieve, but it’s one that has endured. Such impossibilities represented across popular culture and art continue to create damaging beauty standards today. 

What I particulary enjoyed about the exhibition was the opportunity for a closer look at the smaller treasures on display. Examining the fascinating minor details – the toys, the coins, the democratic ballot tickets that only allowed free-born Greek citizens a voice – the realities of a society emerge. For every war hero there are a hundred slaves whose histories have not endured, but only emerge through showcases that provide a comprehensive perspective that doesn’t focus on the easy stories alone. 

Ancient Greeks provides a compelling and nuanced view of an ancient society, whilst also allowing for a celebration of the achievements and glories of the era. It presents a thorough overview of artefacts large and small that’s sure to inspire awe, ignite curiosity, and provide deeper insights into how not only artefacts but also morals, values and insecurities endure across millennia. 

Ancient Greeks
WA Museum Boola Bardip
Perth Cultural Centre, Northbridge
20 June 7 November 2021

Miranda Johnson is an arts writer and curator based on Whadjuk Noongar land. She is currently Hatched Curatorial Fellow at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts and Visual Arts Writer for Seesaw Magazine.