arts and design

Ancient Greeks: Science and Wisdom review – a show from the dark ages

On my way into the Science Museum I overhear someone say that they prefer the Natural History Museum next door. Well, who doesn’t? Compared with the neighbouring cathedral of dinosaurs, this place struggles to communicate the joy of science. It veers from inert displays to interactive playgrounds. The playgrounds are popular, the galleries often empty. Surely there must be a middle way. This foray into ancient Greek culture fails to find it.

An exhibition about ancient Greece at the Science Museum sounded like a chance to discover who renowned 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 search for Atlantis (the mythical island first described by the ancient Greek thinker Plato) as expect answers in this unbelievably trivial encounter with the ancient world. It doesn’t engage in any serious way with Greek science, nor bring any of the minds revered down the ages to life. Archimedes in his bath saying “Eureka!” is too heavy a nugget for us to handle, apparently. Atoms, which Democritus casually suggested everything is made from, might blow our minds.

Aristotle, the scientist and philosopher whose writings are best preserved and whose influence has lasted millennia, is merely quoted on various species of fish next to a display of plates painted with sea creatures.

Silver celestial globe
‘Flat-Earthers are a modern species of idiot’ … Silver celestial globe. Photograph: Nicolas and Alexis Kugel Collection

In fact the whole exhibition is like a tourist poster. Deep blue walls evoke the Aegean. There’s a marble statue of the god Hermes with its once-smooth body eaten away by marine animals. As a classical survival it is ruinous but as an evocation of the Mediterranean it is strangely evocative – calamari on the harbour front and swimming under temple-topped hills. But its only connection to science is that it comes from the famous Antikythera shipwreck, which also contained the world’s oldest geared mechanism. The machine itself isn’t here, and the statue is no replacement.

Another statue, much better preserved, is accompanied by a wall text telling us the ancient Greeks saw the beauty of the human body as a mathematical problem. Well, yes. This is a vast theme at the heart of classical civilisation. You could fill the whole space exploring it from the canon of perfect human proportions calculated by the sculptor Polykleitos to Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing Vitruvian Man. Instead we get one statue and a short text.

Then it’s on to a case of medical instruments, and a cursory reference to Hippocrates. Musical instruments illustrate a completely inadequate description of Pythagoras’s theory of harmonic frequencies – why not more on this? Or at least more of something.

Medical instruments form 250-750 CE
Completely inadequate … a set of medical instruments form 250-750 CE. Photograph: Benaki Museum, Athens

Only at the end does it get a little bit interesting. There’s a mechanical calendar worked by bronze gears, made in ancient Byzantium. It is similar to the Antikythera machine, which we get to see, at last … but only in a brief video. You could just stay at home and Google it instead. One truly exceptional survival of ancient Greek science is on display, however: a celestial globe made from silver in about 300 to 100BC and found near Lake Van in Turkey.

This glittering treasure illustrates both the limitations and genius of Greek science. On the one hand it is covered with images of the constellations, embodiments of a magical, astrological attitude to the night sky. On the other, this is a globe: the ancient Greeks knew the Earth was a sphere. Flat-Earthers are a modern species of idiot. Which 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’ve seen more diverting displays of Greek archaeology in Mediterranean hotel lobbies and learned more about the world of Heraclitus eating a gyros. This is a prolegomenon to nothing. It’s a Greek tragedy is what it is.


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