Donald White

Donald White

To bring the classical world to life, the curator of the University of Pennsylvania Museum’s Mediterranean section dug deep to find buried treasure.

Photo by Mark Stehle

Dead civilizations aren’t really dead. Each generation reshapes them in part to reflect its own way of seeing the world and its people.

It’s been nearly three generations since the University of Pennsylvania Museum’s collections of Roman, Greek and Etruscan objects received a reinterpretation. Professor of Classical Studies Donald White, the curator of the Museum’s Mediterranean section, has been in the field of archaeology for about two of those three generations, and has seen major transformations in both the field and the way the fruits of its research are displayed.

The new “Worlds Intertwined” exhibit, which opened at the Museum March 16, reflects on ways that our understanding of antiquity and how museums interpret the past have advanced since the 1950s. For White, who steps down as curator this summer after 13 years, it’s a sort of valedictory. We spoke with White about the exhibit and his career as an archaeologist.

Q. What are some of the differences between this new exhibit and what was there before?
What was there before was in part set out simply to show interesting objects free of much context. Basically, we put an object or a series of objects that had something interesting to show the public but were not part of a larger description of what the society had produced and was all about.

The Roman gallery was [also] much less crowded, which is the other enormous difference between [“Worlds Intertwined”] and what was there before. I guess there were 200 to 400 objects that were displayed, there will be well over 1000 now. We went into the storage areas of the collection and pulled out objects that had not been seen for many, many years, going back to the ‘20s and before, or had never been seen on exhibit here.

Q. How does this exhibit further the Museum’s mission?
The Museum’s mission has always been understood to be educational and instructive; if you want to use a fancy word, didactic. But it’s now being fulfilled in a different way from the way it was first approached back in 1900, or the ‘20s, or the immediate postwar period.

We believe that our material should not be displayed simply as pretty pieces for the public to admire in a vacuum, but it’s material that represents the material remains of lives that were lived out centuries ago which we still have a fascination with, and can be used to explain what is basically a lost culture.

Q. So what we’re doing now is telling a story?
Everybody in the business of trying to explain the past, whether they’re going on the Discovery Channel to talk about a recent set of discoveries, teaching, or writing an article for the Current, are in the position of making sense of a finite body of factual information and material evidence and creating something that is in some way worthwhile. So in that sense I don’t think that what museum people do with an exhibit like [this one] is all that different from, let’s say, a historical novel.

Q. And how are you “writing” this “novel”?
We’ve got 30,000 objects [in the classical world collection]. So what? I can go to the Philadelphia dump and put my hands on an area that can contain 100,000 objects fairly easily in an afternoon.

We’re trying to use [our collection] as creatively as we can to explain an extremely complicated set of phenomena to people that really don’t, at this point, have that much background and not necessarily all that much interest.

So the way you do that is try to make the displays as approachable, as comprehensible, as interesting as you possibly can without pandering to popular taste. We’re not about to put on the “Who’s the Sexiest Roman?” or anything like that.

Q. But we could tell many more stories with our collection. Is there any practical way to change the stories more often?
The most obvious way is to create gallery space for changing exhibits. That is being planned; that will provide relief in the future. How that comes is going to depend very much on the nature of the financial recovery from 9/11, and I don’t need to tell you that that has had an omnipresent effect on everything we do, not just the Museum.

Q. Some people say that interest in ancient worlds has waned. But the movie “Gladiator” and the controversy surrounding the Constitution Center project suggests to me that people are still interested in learning about the past, and doing it from stuff buried in the ground.
That’s a very prescient observation, which leads me to say that archaeology, if it’s going to mean stuff to people, has to mean something in the contemporary sense.

[For example,] one of the most important of the subthemes [in the exhibit] is slavery. Slavery was the underpinning of the ancient economy, and much of the stuff that’s on display was made by slaves [who] later were freed and became the motors of the manufacturers that produced this stuff.

You can’t tell me that someone coming into the gallery today isn’t going to look at this exhibit with different eyes from a white American looking at it in the ‘60s or ‘70s. Everybody’s going to put their own spin on it, and rightly so. We don’t spell out [the role of slavery] as far as I’d like to, because we don’t have enough text available. But the teachers that come in, and the grownups too, will take this as a cue to examine the same kinds of things that are working down in the [slave quarters beneath] the Constitution Center.

I could go through these exhibits and work with many of the themes and tell you that what we’ve said about them is very much shaped by the age in which we live and that in another 50 years people are going to look at them very differently. Not necessarily more accurately, or in a better way, but just differently.

…Archaeology is not a panacea, it doesn’t give you a photographic record of the past in a true sense. It’s another tool that can be brought to bear to kind of get a grip on something that’s been gone, gone forever.

Q. What got you interested in archaeology?
I grew up on a farm and there was this neat dump on the farm, which had been established by my great-grandfather, and my brothers and I used to go down there and dig stuff up. We were mainly interested in recovering old bottles, which we’d then set up and throw stones at them. Talk about destructive archaeology! This launched my career in destroying remains of the ancient past.

I’m not being entirely serious when I say this is what got me into archaeology, but it in some ways prepared me for what was to be the eventual decision. I had suffered through six years of Latin when I was in school, and I took Greek when I went to college, and I became a classics major. It was a pretty dumb thing to do, maybe, because it was certainly not career-oriented, and I didn’t have a very clear idea of what I was going to do with all this except that I liked doing that.

Originally published on March 20, 2003