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What’s Old is New Again

What do replicas of ancient Greek sculptures and Minoan frescoes have in common with Baltimore culture? It turns out quite a bit, according to Emily Anderson, assistant professor of classics. She and her team of 11 students are examining how and why the arrival of such replicas made a splash in late 19th- and early 20th-century Baltimore, and how it impacted the identity of the ancient cultures.

“The ancient past, as we know it, is always something that’s present,” Anderson says. “The social context in which it takes form ‘now’ is every bit as much of its fiber as the millennia-old artifacts themselves.

Anderson is studying those interactions in her project White to Technicolor, Gilded to Jazz: Ancient Replicas and Cultural Change in Modern Baltimore. It’s funded by a Johns Hopkins Catalyst Award, which grants up to $75,000 to support promising research of early career faculty. The project focuses on researching the impact of two groups of ancient replicas: initially, a collection of plaster casts of Greek and Roman sculptures first displayed at the Peabody Institute in the late 1800s; second, vividly colored ancient replicas of Minoan frescoes and artifacts stemming from fresh excavations in Greece, which arrived in Baltimore in the 1910s to 1930s.

“The two collections of replicas are wrapped up in a lot of what was happening in the city at that time—feeding into creative forms, from theater sets to advertisements,” says Anderson.  

Her team intended to spend fall 2020 searching museums and basements for the now-scattered casts. Due to COVID-19, they’re poring over archives to understand how Baltimoreans were able (or unable) to engage with the ancient replicas and other ancient artifacts. They are looking at transportation records, streetcar lines, public school curricula, histories of race relations and immigration, and partnering with local archivists.

Emily Anderson headshot

The ancient past, as we know it, is always something that’s present. The social context in which it takes form ‘now’ is every bit as much of its fiber as the millennia-old artifacts themselves.

—Emily Anderson

Casts of “classical” sculpture were an established art form in Western Europe before they arrived in the U.S. Those with access flocked to the newly established Peabody Institute to see the elite, pure white casts. Collection catalogues were used as school textbooks, and in the 1920s the sculptures were loaned to public schools and cultural institutions and became a part of the fabric of the city. 

But by the early 1900s, America and Baltimore were changing. Jazz was burgeoning as African American culture experienced a powerful renaissance, suffrage clubs were forming, and newspapers were covering the first excavation of a 1500 B.C. Minoan palace. When replicas from that dig arrived in Baltimore, Anderson says locals identified with them as new, modern art, even though the originals were older than those reproduced in the Peabody casts. The perception of the frescoes was less influenced by long-standing European tradition, and inspired a wide range of fashions and art. 

The second half of the project focuses on how the Minoan artifacts connected with that shift in Baltimore’s urban and musical culture. This includes what someone saw when they were listening to jazz in early venues: the stages and costumes, and how the ancient influenced music, album covers, and visual culture of the day. Her team is working with experts from the history department and the Center for Africana Studies, as well as the William J. Watkins, Sr. Educational Institute, the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore Heritage, and the Peale Center for Baltimore History and Architecture to make these connections.

“Those collaborations are a transformative experience for me,” Anderson says. “Part of that is seeing how the students have become so deeply invested in it. This is their city.”

The research project will culminate in academic papers and a book, as well as a virtual exhibition. Anyone with an internet connection will be able to experience the Peabody casts as Baltimoreans did at the turn of the century: in a 3D exhibit where visitors wander at leisure. The exhibit will also reconsider the collection and its position in the city, by including biographies of Peabody staff. The casts are set within a broader examination of Baltimore’s urban space, drawing out different ways people were engaging with the ancient past.