Tucked neatly into a far corner of the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) sits a small room otherwise known as the McNichol Gallery, which often presents eclectic collections of unusual items. Until Aug. 19, it will be home to an exhibit of Classical Antiquity titled “Teaching with Art: Life and Death in Ancient Rome.” The display, which showcases an array of objects pertaining to the everyday life and eventual death in ancient Rome, was put together by Associate Professor of Classics Benjamin Rubin in order to complement the material of a course he is offering this spring, “Roman Archaeology and Material Culture.”
I met with Rubin to discuss the execution and goals of the exhibit in addition to its relationship to his class in his cheerfully decorated office in Schapiro Hall. “It’s my third year teaching here, but when I came I already knew that there was a collection of Greek and Roman objects, and I wanted to use it as much as possible,” he said. For Rubin, the primary purpose was to stimulate students to look beyond what is possible inside the classroom: “Students enjoy and are inspired by using ancient artifacts; I can show a coin on a PowerPoint slide and study it intently, but it’s not like having it in your hand,” he said. In addition, it will make for a more original method of grading in this spring’s course, which students are sure to get excited about. “The final paper will not be about any old topic; instead we’ll have the whole class building up to writing a paper about a particular object,” Rubin said.
The manner in which the artifacts came into the hands of the College is quite interesting and poses a unique challenge to the students. “A lot of the objects were donated in the late 19th or early 20th centuries, and we know very little about how they got there or even what they are,” Rubin admitted. However, this ambiguity creates the opportunity for the students to contribute to the identification of these artifacts in a very real way, and he expects that their papers will be put into the museum’s files. “I want my students to do their research, figure the objects out for themselves and eventually write a text label to provide more contextual information,” he said.
Nonetheless, the exhibit is not reserved exclusively for those in the know. “Hopefully a layperson would see that WCMA has a very important ancient objects collection. It has many everyday life objects, and you can see things that aren’t usually on display,” Rubin said. Mot interestingly, this highlights one of the more important roles that art played in ancient Rome. “It helps us think about how Romans constructed their identity and how art is integral to that progress,” he explained, especially since many of the objects are related to death and the way that individuals chose to represent themselves once they were gone. Furthermore, Rubin demonstrated that these issues are highly relevant to the modern world. “I would say that we have a very visual culture in America,” he said, “but in a society where most people are illiterate, visual culture is even more important. Roman art wasn’t put into museums; it was meant as a means of communication, and it worked.”
When it came to the exhibit itself, Rubin was particularly excited by the assistance he received from the staff at the museum. In particular, Rubin cited Coordinator of Mellon Academic Programs Elizabeth Gallerani as an invaluable asset to the project. “She approached me about starting up the exhibit and did a very good job of keeping the Rose Gallery open for me,” he said. “Most art historians here are used to using these resources but not many people outside of that department do it.” The Rose Gallery is a unique asset for Rubin’s students: The gallery is set aside for teaching purposes at the request of the professor, and Rubin will take full advantage of this opportunity throughout the semester. In addition, he admitted to having favorites among the pieces of the collection, in particular those in relation to his research interests: “I really like the funerary relief of the young boy from Egypt. As a scholar, I’m fascinated by identity construction in the Eastern Roman Empire; he wears the toga and bulla, symbols of Roman identity and boyhood specifically,” Rubin said. “A boy in Egypt is wearing these things, but the style is very frontal, his proportions aren’t veristic, and we sense that there is a mixture of local styles that have a very ancient history with new Roman influences.”
Next year, Rubin will be taking a sabbatical, so the exhibit will not return for a while. Nonetheless, he certainly intends to offer the class in the future, and since the McNichol Gallery specifically stipulates that it cannot contain the same display twice, this will create incentives to select new items from the collection that are at his disposal. Reassuringly, WCMA owns enough ancient Roman objects that several permutations can be made, and the exhibit is likely to return in some form in the future.