Free City Hall exhibit showcases ancient artifacts

A Tanagra style terracotta figurine of the Hellenistic period: Two women are standing on either side of a funerary stele, which is partially preserved. Queen’s University professors use a series of different techniques to look at ancient artifacts, the findings of which are currently on display at Kingston City Hall. Submitted image.

A new exhibit at Kingston’s City Hall aims to provide members of the public with a rare glimpse at ancient artifacts. Antiquities Through Modern Eyes is a joint project led by Queen’s University professors Emy Kim of the Department of Art History and Art Conservation, and Cristiana Zaccagnino of the Department of Classics and Archaeology. According to Zaccagnino, the project was born out of a desire for more collaboration between the two departments. 

Georgia Landgraf, left, (MA in Classics) and Caroline Longo, right, (MA in Art Conservation) using a profile gauge to make a technical drawing of a Lekythos. Submitted photo.

“We are from two different departments… I’m a classical archaeologist while Emy is an art conservator, but we like to work together and train our students in working together… Generally, we ask different questions [as researchers]; knowing how to ask some questions and what [to do with] the answers is extremely important in order to collaborate and treat the artifacts properly,” Zaccagnino said.

Not only has the project allowed Kim and Zaccagnino to collaborate, but it also created opportunities for students in the Master of Art Conservation program to work alongside graduate students in Classics and Archeology.

“The Master of Art Conservation program is the only one of its kind in Canada. So, to have a graduate program in classics in the same institution was just a really special opportunity,” said Kim. “Conservators are interested in a lot of things, [notably] the past and preservation, but also a bit of history, and classicists are interested in similar topics. But, they also deal with material artifacts, as well as history. So, it was just this really special opportunity to work together.”

After forging connections between the two departments, Kim and Zaccagnino were able to secure funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) to launch their collaborative project, in the hopes of creating something members of the public could enjoy, as well.

“The goal of the grant… was to be able to share our fields, not only with each other, but with the public. We had this idea of training our students to work together, which was one challenge, but also to put something together that is interesting and understandable to the public, which [was] a second really huge challenge,” Kim remarked.

The exhibition, which officially opened in April 2023, provides rare public access to the university’s Diniacopoulos Collection, which contains ancient artifacts from the Mediterranean region. 

Robin Langmuir (left) and Caroline Longo (right), both Master of Art Conservation students, conducting X-ray Fluorescence on a Tanagra figurine. Submitted photo.

“We are lucky at Queen’s University, [because] the departments of Classics and Archaeology and the program of Art Conservation own together a collection of ancient artifacts, which was acquired with the purpose of training students. [It is] a collection which is not available to the public, it is not displayed anywhere at Queen’s. So, the idea behind our project… was also to make available this collection, even though it’s a very small part, to the city of Kingston,” noted Zaccagnino.

Antiquities Through Modern Eyes has three key themes, including the role of collaboration between archaeologists and conservators in a case titled “Collaboration is Key,” which asks how the two fields can provide a stronger understanding of ancient history.

“It is an important factor [in the exhibition], to show that [there can be] collaboration between different disciplines… to share the knowledge of these artifacts with other people,” Zaccagnino said, as she also noted the exhibition will allow members of the public to gain a better understanding of the work archeologists and art historians do.

“There is [also] this idea of letting people know what an archaeologist generally does, because… what people imagine about an archeologist is what comes from movies, which is everything but the real life of an archaeologist and what an art conservator does… if you go visit the exhibit, along with seeing the artifacts our students are working on, there are also some tools, which are the tools art conservators use to read the artifacts.”

On top of collaboration, the exhibit features two other themes: “What Colour Can Tell Us,” and “Traces of the Maker,” which, according to Kim, are more focused on the specific artifacts themselves. “One [of the themes is] colour, and what colour can tell the viewer… [as well as] the archeologist versus conservator. There, we showcase the work that our students have done to do technical and stylistic analyses of various objects,” she said.

Artifacts featured in the “What Colour Can Tell Us” theme include a Tanagra figurine; a terra cotta statue from the Hellenistic period.

“There’s still colour evident on this object. If you visit it, you can see the object itself, as well as a step-by-step analysis of different colours. One of the questions… is whether the colour is linked to maybe a pigment that is appropriate for the time. This introduces questions of historic restoration to the viewer,” Kim said of the significance of the Tanagra figurine.

Aside from several ancient figurines, the exhibit also includes a number of other artifacts, including three ancient Roman coins, as well as two Greek vases, which date back to the fifth century BC.

“Both [vases] are fragmentary, but, from the cases, the visitors can understand what the whole vase looked like,” noted Zaccagnino.

According to Kim, the artifacts on display at City Hall differ from those found in conventional history museums, as researchers have focused on displaying the objects in the form they were discovered in.

Lekythos (ancient Greek oil decanter) fragments before treatment under UV light, showing shellac from previous treatment fluorescing. Submitted image.

“It’s different from… a museum exhibition, because a lot of the objects are so fragmentary. That is an important part of what we wanted to convey; this is often how these [artifacts] are found and these have not been overly restored, meaning… [missing] parts have not been completely filled in and designs were not prefabricated, [in order] to show what students might encounter when they are on a dig or in a conservation lab,” she said.

As for how the public has responded so far to the exhibit, Kim noted there has been interest among members of the city’s academic community, however, the two are also hoping to attract non-academic members of the public.

“We would like the public to know what questions we have in our minds. We are both interested in preserving history and knowledge,” she said, while pointing to the importance of preservation amid the rapid rise of climate change.

“If you go to the exhibition, you can see very personal traces of these ancient people who made objects, down to their fingerprints… If we get people to care about objects and the history contained in the objects, I think that will be a big victory for both of our fields.”

The exhibition officially opened with a symposium at Memorial Hall on April 5, 2023, which included remarks from Kim and Zaccagnino, as well as talks from many of the other researchers involved in the project, covering topics such as changes in archeological conservation, surface analysis of ancient objects, and Athenian wedding iconography, among others. The talks can be re-watched in their entirety online.

Antiquities Through Modern Eyes will be open to members of the public, inside Kingston’s City Hall, until March 2024. The exhibit is free to access during City Hall’s regular operating hours and is located to the left of the main entrance, off Ontario Street. More information can be found on the project’s website.

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