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‘A World Within Reach’ Review: Harvard Art Museums Curates a Refreshing Connection to Antiquity

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Harvard Art Museums’ “A World Within Reach: Greek and Roman Art from the Loeb Collection” debuted Jan. 28 providing a fresh perspective of ancient worlds to the Harvard community for the spring season.

The exhibit displays over 60 Greek and Roman artifacts from the collection of James Loeb, Class of 1888. In carrying out Loeb’s vision of broadening modern perspectives through ancience collections, Munich’s Staatliche Antikensammlungen und Glyptothek shared the collection with the Harvard Art Museums.

Loeb’s belief in the power of small figurines to enlarge viewpoints drives the exhibit’s approachable tone. Absent are the daunting friezes or imposing stone sculptures often conjured by the word ‘antiquity’ — rather, in their place are manifestations of culture and human concern small enough to hold in one’s hand. The new exhibit places the world of ancient Greece and Rome into the imaginations of modern museum-goers, favoring humble, welcoming looks at what it meant to live in the Mediterranean basin several thousand years ago. From wearable pieces to humorous animal figurines, the objects on display narrate the human experience and form endearing connections between their modern and early viewers.

“A World Within Reach” is organized along themes of human motivations — power, desire, wonder — drawing back the curtains of time to illuminate the experiences of people of antiquity. Visitors are empowered to marvel at the world through the eyes of ancient citizens, examining feminine desire in female figurines, identity and power through mythological characters, and the wonder of the natural world within the carved flora and fauna.

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James Loeb collection

James Loeb collection

These artifacts — set at eye level — greet visitors immediately upon entry. Displays placed at varied angles disrupt sight lines across the gallery, impeding a formalized, disengaged path through the space. Instead, visitors flow through the gallery along a meandering path of discovery, circling around displays to confront the objects from all angles.

Several works urge visitors to further contemplate views of the pieces across time. Six pieces are accompanied by both their 20th-century catalogue entries and contemporary commentaries — a nod to the format of the Loeb Classical Library, which rendered ancient literature publicly accessible with ancient texts side-by-side to their modern translations. Preserving Loeb’s legacy in providing accessible connections to the past, the displays point to dynamic, living stories of the artifacts and artists.

By shedding the stiff formalities often associated with curated antiquity, the gallery places modern viewers in familiar conversation with viewers from 2,000 years ago in the language of their surviving art. The resulting exhibit opts for an intimate modern view into the human concerns of the objects’ early viewers, rather than a reverence for curated time pieces.

Cambridge students’ own contemporary dialogues with Greek and Roman artifacts are incorporated as an audio-visual supplement to the gallery space. As visitors marvel at the items on display, looped student video submissions from Cambridge Community Television’s 2022–23 School Year Production Program expand on connections to antiquity through relevant objects of Harvard’s collections.

Gallery visitors and local students alike are emboldened to imagine the cultures of antiquity, perhaps recognizing themselves in displayed depictions of Roman human-animal bonds or through their reflections in the personal mirror of a Greek citizen. Harvard Art Museums’ 2023 spring exhibit establishes a welcome human-scale conversation between antiquity and modernity, chaperoning visitors on a field trip to an ancient world which is indeed within reach.

“A World Within Reach: Greek and Roman Art from the Loeb Collection” is on view through May 7 in the University Research Gallery.

—Staff writer Marin E. Gray can be reached at marin.gray@thecrimson.com.

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