Ferdie Rous

Cambridge, ‘whiteness’ and the politicisation of Classics

(Photo by ABDULLAH DOMA/AFP via Getty Images)

In Cambridge University’s latest push to right the wrongs of history, its Museum of Classical Archaeology will add some signage to explain the ‘whiteness’ of its collection of Greek and Roman statues.

The Classics faculty, of which the museum is part, has taken this great and noble mission upon itself in response to an open letter signed by dozens of students, alumni and academics — including the chair of the Classics faculty itself. The letter calls for ‘an acknowledgement of the existence of systemic racism within Classics’ and argues that the white plaster casts of Classical statues give a ‘misleading impression’ of an ‘absence of diversity’ in the ancient world. The museum agrees, and so up goes the signage.

Mad as it may sound, there is logic in the lunacy.

Renaissance and Enlightenment thinkers in particular baulked at the savagery of colour

The statues overlooking the bustling fora of the ancient Mediterranean were not seen by the togaed passers-by in the creamy white of the marble they were carved from. The stately gods and heroes adorning the temples and cities of the ancient world were, in fact, daubed with dazzling dyes and paints.

The stains and smudges that you’ll find on many an ancient statue were not, as academics down the centuries suspected, the result of age and discolouration, but the remnants of these gaudy colours. Renaissance and Enlightenment thinkers in particular baulked at the savagery of colour, preferring to cling to a belief in a perfect white form.

And yet there is a glaring peculiarity in Cambridge’s logic, as one academic observed. The vast majority of the statues in the museum’s 600-strong collection are of Greeks and Romans, which doesn’t promise much by way of diversity. Dispelling the lies about white statues may be right and proper, but it cannot be for the reason the university has given — their statues are hardly a rainbow nation.

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