Classical Childplay: Oakley co-curator of major exhibit
“It helps us realize that in many ways the Greeks were just like us—it helps us to identify with them on a personal level across the span of centuries and civilizations,” he says.
Oakley, along with his longtime colleague and friend Jenifer Neils, professor of art history at Case Western Reserve University, is co-curator of the first major museum exhibit focused on childhood in ancient Greece. He has plenty of evidence to support his conviction. To skeptics, who point to ancient practices such as child labor, pederasty, and selective infant death by exposure to suggest that children were not particularly valued, much less loved, he counters, “We know Greek parents loved their children from the way that they observed them” and from the way that their artists and craftsmen “depicted them.”
Serving as cocurator of a groundbreaking museum exhibit on ancient childhood has been gratifying for John Oakley. It also has left him exhausted. Photo by David Williard.
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|A nurse with children is one of Oakley's favorite artifacts.|
Finally he stops. “This,” he says, holding up the page, “is one of my favorites. Here you have this old nurse in charge of the kids—one is a little girl who sort of clings to the nurse and is happy, and the other is a little boy. The nurse is tugging on the boy. He doesn’t want to go. You know that he doesn’t want to walk any farther, just like many young children.”
He comments on the detail, talks about the conveyed emotion and suggests that such art would only be produced in a civilization where parents had love for and took pride in their offspring. “You can just picture it happening today—if not here then definitely up in New York, where many nannies and nurses are employed. We can see ourselves. We can connect,” he says, beaming.
Oakley’s toy box
Images of childplay fascinate Oakley. Such scenes originally caught his attention in graduate school when he—“a student who was mostly interested in just excavating”—took a course in Greek pottery—“only because every archeologist has to know pottery.” In the intervening decades, such depictions have endeared the ancient Greek culture to him in a way not possible through readings of the surviving literature.
Indeed, showing off the catalog and describing the exhibit, “Coming of Age in Ancient Greece,” Oakley, himself, seems transported back through time from his current roles as a father and a Greek archeologist. It is as if the exhibit represents his own personal toy box.
“We have spinning tops, hoops like you see in Colonial Williamsburg, rattles, dolls, juggling sticks, see-saws, wheeled animals and carts,” he says. “And there are knucklebones (astragaloi).”
Describing knucklebones, Oakley is at play. “They are ankle bones of sheep and goats, which were collected by children—everybody had them,” he explains. “In one type of game, different sides of the bones were given values, and they were used like dice,” he says, rolling an imaginary set from his hand onto the floor of his Morton Hall office. Another type of game involves throwing them and trying to knock something out of a circle. Another is a game where you actually throw them up in the air and catch them on the back of your hand—“you catch as many as you can,” he says, making an upward flicking motion and then, his hand turned palm toward the desk top, mimicking a catch.
Childhood not all rosy
Although the fact that such scenes exist attest to the fact that the Greeks did not merely view children as miniature adults—a common approach in both ancient and more recent cultures—it does not mean that childhood in ancient Greece was idyllic. Oakley admits the charges of skeptics: there was child slavery, child molestation, the practice of abandoning children to their fates—practices which were accepted then but would be considered criminal in society today. He adds that child mortality was incredibly high—”a third of them did not survive the first two months,” he suggests. Yet many of these situations, he believes, were results of economic and social conditions. As such, he says, he will not judge.
Nor will Oakley attempt to synthesize what a typical childhood experience would be in ancient Greece. When asked to do just that, he replies, “If I turn the question around, it becomes, ‘What is it like to be a kid growing up in the United States?’
“ You may tell me what it is like as somebody in the social class and the race group that you’re in, but it would be very different for somebody in another social class. All of Greece had these little city-states, and each one was different. If you grew up in Sparta, it would be a much different type of training during childhood than you would have in the city of Athens. There is no one answer.”
Exhilarating and exhausting
The work involved with the exhibit has been prodigious, and, for Oakley, despite the enthusiasm which persists, exhausting. For him, it started six years ago. Just when one would think it is finished, it goes on and on. He admits that it “is tiring.” It has him talking about “restoring balance” in his life, about “whether or not he is pushing himself too much.”
Certainly he has enjoyed both the acclaim and the spotlight. Receiving a glowing review from the New York Times, opening at the Hood Museum and being scheduled to appear, among other venues, at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles are “worth celebrating,” he says. But he seems to wish that it were over.
“Since this was the first really big exhibit I did, I was amazed at the amount of work,” he says. “Every day there were five or six e-mails of things you had to do. At certain points in time it was very strenuous. We had to help write grants. We were involved in an audio guide. There was a video, and a DVD. We would get asked by different magazines to do things for them. One magazine contacted me and needed an article in one week. That became a weekend assignment.
“Yes, I enjoyed it, but I swore a half year ago that I’d never do another show. If that’s true or not, I don’t know. I’ll be 54 in November. I’ll be 55 when all this is over. Am I going to jump right into another one? No.”
Maybe not; maybe so. Certainly Oakley believes it is important for individuals today to connect with people who have predated them—in the case of the ancient Greeks, people who predated them by two millennia. He finds it “reaffirming” to know “we have these things in common.” If he chooses not to undertake another exhibit of the scope of “Coming of Age in Ancient Greece,” he already has several alternate projects in mind.
One, which seems to rekindle the momentarily lapsed enthusiasm, involves molding the materials from the exhibit into a freshman seminar at William and Mary. “That will be something I will look forward to,” he says, any trace of fatigue immediately gone from his inflection.
by David Williard
About Coming of Age in Ancient Greece
|Oakley helped prepare a 300-plus page catalog to accompany the exhibit.|
In an article written for National Geographic, John Oakley said, “One of the revolutionary contributions of this exhibition is that it makes clear how the Greeks were the first culture to represent children and their activities naturally. In addition, it shows that this was true already as early as the second millennium B.C. during the Bronze Age, both on mainland Greece, as well as in the islands.”
The exhibit opened at the Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, on Aug 23. After it closes there on Dec. 14, it will travel to the Onassis Cultural Center in New York, where it will run from Jan. 20, 2004 through April 15, 2004. From May 21, 2004 until Aug. 1, 2004, it is scheduled for the Cincinnati Art Museum, and then it closes at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, where it is scheduled from Sept. 14, 2004 until Dec. 5, 2004.
View Coming of Age in Ancient Greece at the Hood Museum's Web site.