Ancient Greeks: A Review of Science and Wisdom – A Show from the Dark Ages | Exhibitions
ohWhen I entered the science museum, I heard someone say that he preferred the natural history museum next door. Well, who doesn’t? Compared to the nearby Dinosaur Cathedral, this place struggles to communicate the joy of science. It turns inert displays into interactive playgrounds. Playgrounds are popular, galleries often empty. Surely there must be a middle way. This foray into ancient Greek culture fails to find it.
An exhibition on Ancient Greece at the Science Museum seemed like a chance to find out who famous ancient Greek scientists such as Anaxagoras, Pythagoras, Democritus, Aristotle, Euclid and Archimedes really were, to find out what they thought and why.
But you may as well seek out Atlantis (the mythical island first described by the ancient Greek thinker Plato) as you expect answers in this incredibly mundane encounter with the ancient world. He does not seriously engage with Greek science, nor does he bring to life any of the revered spirits through the ages. Archimedes in his bath saying “Eureka! is too much of a nugget for us to handle, apparently. Atoms, which Democritus casually suggested is all done, might surprise us.
Aristotle, the best-preserved scientist and philosopher whose influence spans millennia, is simply cited about various species of fish alongside a display of plaques painted with sea creatures.
In fact, the whole exhibition is like a tourist poster. The deep blue walls evoke the Aegean Sea. There is a marble statue of the god Hermes with his once smooth body eaten away by sea animals. As a classic holdover it’s ruinous, but as an evocation of the Mediterranean it’s eerily evocative – squid on the waterfront and swimming under hills topped with temples. But its only connection to science is that it comes from the famous Antikythera Shipwreck, which also contained the world’s oldest gear mechanism. The machine itself is not there and the statue does not replace it.
Another statue, much better preserved, is accompanied by a wall text telling us that the ancient Greeks considered the beauty of the human body to be a mathematical problem. Well yes. It is a broad theme at the heart of classical civilization. You could fill the space as you explore, from the canon of perfect human proportions calculated by sculptor Polykleitos to the drawing of Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. Instead, we get a statue and a short text.
Next, we move on to a medical instrument case and a quick reference to Hippocrates. Musical instruments illustrate a completely inadequate description of Pythagorean harmonic frequency theory – why not more on that? Or at least more of something.
It’s only at the end that it gets a little interesting. There is a mechanical calendar worked by bronze gears, made in ancient Byzantium. It’s similar to the Antikythera machine, which we finally see… but only in a brief video. You can just stay at home and Google instead. A truly exceptional holdover from ancient Greek science is on display, however: a celestial globe made of silver between around 300 and 100 BC and found near Lake Van in Turkey.
This sparkling treasure illustrates both the limits and the genius of Greek science. On the one hand, it is covered with images of constellations, embodiments of a magical and astrological attitude towards the night sky. On the other hand, it is a globe: the ancient Greeks knew that the Earth was a sphere. The Plat-Terres are a modern kind of idiot. This is why we need better science education, to save us from internet ignorance and anti-vaxxing antediluvians. But you won’t find it here.
I saw more entertaining exhibits of Greek archeology in Mediterranean hotel lobbies and learned more about the world of Heraclitus eating a gyroscope. It is a prolegomena to nothing. It is a Greek tragedy, it is what it is.