Bodies in Crisis Online Exhibit Launches overview image

Bodies in Crisis Online Exhibit Launches

  • Post Date: 09/06/2023
  • Author: Clara Bosak-Schroeder, Associate Professor of Classics
  • Reading Time: 5 minute read
In 2022, we featured a physical exhibit at the Museum titled Bodies in Crisis. When the exhibit's run concluded, we started work on an online exhibit which includes all the objects and interpretive text from the physical exhibit. In this post, curator Clara Bosak-Schroeder discusses how the physical exhibit—which led to the online version—became reality.
In this exhibit you will encounter the golden faces of Egyptian dead, people with disabilities like dwarfism and pregnancy, and human-animal hybrids including gorgons, bull-men, and centaurs. All of these representations of the body pose a crisis, sometimes for the person themselves but more often for the viewer, a crisis of meaning and interpretation. By studying how people in the ancient Mediterranean understood bodily change, I hope that visitors will confront some of their assumptions about what it means to be, or be seen as having, a normal body, a good body, a body without problems.

Bodies in Crisis Online Exhibit photo
Exhibit: Bodies in Crisis Online Exhibit

I began this project by searching my way through the Spurlock’s online catalogue. I didn’t have a theme in mind—I didn’t really know what I was looking for. Instead, I was committed to a scope. In my field, classical studies, Greek and Roman artifacts are often separated from their broader Mediterranean context. I wanted to start with that context, to show the relationships between cultures and expand what visitors might expect from “the ancient world.” Following the example of Carol Symes’ journal at Illinois, The Medieval Globe, I thought not just about the lands that border the Mediterranean Ocean but the networks of trade and conquest that it facilitated. This led me to survey objects across Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.

And what I found were bodies: the human and sometimes the divine body in moments of death, disability, and monstrous transformation. These categories resonated with my own experience (external link) of bodily change: my mother’s sudden, excruciating death in 2012; my odyssey through infertility, IVF, miscarriage, and the birth of my daughter; and the chronic illness and disability that have shaped more than half of my life. As time goes on—and despite my great privilege as a white person and tenured professor—it feels like I can take less and less of the world for granted. I feel at sea, I feel it in my very cells.

  • Burial mask depicting a face with gold and black pigment
  • Terracotta jug in the shape of an Egyption dwarf god

When I pitched this exhibit in 2020, I wasn’t thinking explicitly about the pandemic, but my mentors at Spurlock saw potential for visitors to reflect on and process their pandemic experience through an encounter with ancient objects. We thought that this exhibit would come “after” Covid-19 and provide a retrospective understanding, an understanding of what we had been through together. This is not that “after,” if an after is even possible. And without trying to make everything about the pandemic, I think we were right: these objects can be tools for understanding the specifics of mortality and illness, of what “normal” means for our bodies and lives at this very particular moment in time.

  • Display case containing artifacts related to the death portion of the exhibit
  • Display case containing artifacts related to the transformation portion of the exhibit

But this is only one meaning Bodies in Crisis may hold. I’ve told you what I see when I look at these objects, but even if I could determine your interpretation, I wouldn’t want to. This is what I love about museum practice: the collaboration between visitor and curator, the museum as a space not to passively learn but to actively create. Many people who visit this exhibit—including perhaps yourselves!—won’t look at all of it, won’t read many of the words I have so carefully written. I love this. I love crafting something and then letting it go.

  • Overview of the gallery with exhibit related artifacts on display