Forbes and Fifth

A Universal Display

Like the derived word museum from the ancient Greek ‘museion’, the creation of museums originates from antiquity.i In the Greco-Roman world, museums were frequented by the intelligentsia. These people would visit museums to contemplate matters concerning philosophy and the arts. From the Renaissance through the 18th century, the term ‘museum’ was used to describe private collections of the aristocracy, which were meant to be viewed by an elite audience. While the target audience of museums has shifted over time, it was the Enlightenment that prompted a fundamental change in the role of museums. The institutional focus shifted from the viewing of exclusive, private collections to the intellectual enrichment of the average person.ii This transition framed the creation of universal, or encyclopedic, museums as imperial powers made new discoveries in their colonial territories, adding ancient and exotic objects to their ever-expanding public collections.iii

The mission of universal museums was to collect information about everything. For example, a universal museum theoretically can comment on everything from plant species, to microbes, to distant stars. Thus, each exhibit is created to convey specific ‘essential’ information that enriches the viewer’s ‘universal’ understanding of the world.iv To better comprehend the relationship between the mission of the universal museum and the artifacts it collects, this research will analyze the display choices surrounding the British Museum’s collection of Panathenaic amphorai.

Produced in Athens from approximately the 6th to the 2nd centuries BC, Panathenaic amphorai are painted ceramic vases that were awarded to victors of the Greater Panathenaic Games.v The Greater Panathenaic Games were athletic, equestrian, musical, and artistic competitions held in the city of Athens every four years. During the Games, athletes from across Greece competed in a variety of athletic and equestrian competitions for the Panathenaic prize amphorai. These prize amphorai were filled with olive oil, the amount of which was based on their ranking in the The contents of one vase was equivalent to several thousand dollars by today’s standards.vii These vases were decorated with figural scenes on two sides: the first side depicted Athena as a warrior midstride between two pillars, typically holding a spear and aegis shield, while the second side showed the winner’s event.viii All Panathenaic amphorai were inscribed with the phrase, “a prize from the games at Athens,” and after the 4th century, the name of the reigning archon (public official) was listed as well.ix

Over time, Panathenaic amphorai were excavated and eventually made their way into the private collections of wealthy individuals. For instance, Lord Hamilton collected more than three hundred vases when he became the British envoy to Naples in 1764.x Lord Hamilton’s Greek vases were acquired by the British Museum in 1772, and together with the acquisition of Charles Townley’s GrecoRoman sculptures in 1805, they triggered the development of the Antiquities Department in the British Museum.xi Today, the British Museum of London holds the largest collection of Panathenaic amphorai outside of Greece.xii As such, one would expect that the amphorai on display are a representative sample of the awards presented to victors of the Panathenaic Games. In other words, it is expected that the iconography on the vases depict most, if not all, of the events of the Games. However, it is possible that the vases are not representative (e.g., perhaps one event, like wrestling, is overrepresented) and were selectively chosen for display based on other criteria, such as condition, preservation, or the mission of the museum.

This thesis seeks to determine whether the British Museum’s Panathenaic amphorai exhibit reflects the museum’s history and position as a universal museum. To address this question, field research was conducted at the British Museum. The research consisted primarily of the visual analysis of the Panathenaic amphorai display and the evaluation of interpretive materials, such as wall texts, labels, brochures, and guided tours. An observational evaluation of the exhibit was also conducted, which entailed counting heads and carefully noting features that appeared to capture the visitors’ attention. To understand why display decisions were made, a curator in the Department of Greece and Rome was interviewed regarding the history of the exhibit.

For comparative purposes, field research was also conducted at the Ashmolean Museum at the University of Oxford. The Ashmolean is a university museum that is dedicated to academic education, and, thus, pursues a different mission than the British Museum. It also contains a collection of Panathenaic prize amphorai.xiii In a similar fashion, the Panathenaic amphorai display was visually analyzed, interpretive materials were assessed, and an observational evaluation of the exhibit was performed. A curator at the Ashmolean was also interviewed to determine why the museum made its current display choices and how the amphorai were displayed in the past. With both of these examples, the British Museum representing a universal museum and the Ashmolean representing a university museum, a comparative analysis was performed to determine whether the current exhibit of Panathenaic prize amphorai in the British Museum fulfills the institution’s universal mission.

It was determined that the British Museum’s display of Panathenaic amphorai does indeed reflect the institution’s universal mission. In particular, its large quantity of vases provides the museum with the opportunity to present the vessels in multiple contexts and effectively convey their overall significance—an opportunity that a museum with fewer vases does not have. Ultimately, it is hoped that this research will contribute to ongoing conversations concerning display choice and the role of the universal museum.

Sample and Summative Evaluation

Due to the British Museum’s abundance of objects, the museum has two different exhibit formats: On the ground floor, exhibits are arranged according to culture as seen in Rooms 13 (Greece:1050-520 BC), 19 (Athens and the Acropolis: 430- 400 BC), and 20 (Greeks and Lycians: 400-325 BC). On the upper floors, exhibits are arranged by topic, such as Room 69 (Greek and Roman Life). The British Museum’s eight Panathenaic amphorai are spread among these rooms and displayed according to the gallery themes. In each of these rooms, head counts and label evaluations of object labels and wall texts were performed to determine the amount of traffic the rooms receive over the course of an hour.

With the entrances to the room parallel to each other, Room 13 (Greece: 1050- 520 BC) is primarily composed of vase displays, as seen in Figure 1. There are display cabinets around the perimeter of the room, two large displays in the middle of the room, and the remainder of the space taken up by the descending staircase leading to Room 13a, which is no longer in use (Figure 2). The Panathenaic amphorai are in one of the two large display cases in the center of the room, located closer to the stairs that descend to 13a. This room contains large descriptive wall texts where the two Panathenaic amphorai in this room are contained, describing the history of black-figure vase painting and its relationship with Athens. The case does not have a number assigned to it, but the placards are entitled: “Athens” and “Athenian Black-Figure Vase Painting.” One of the two amphorai is the Burgon Amphora—the oldest extant Panathenaic amphorai (Figure 3)—and the other is a vase attributed to the circle of the Princeton Painter (Figure 4). On May 19, 2017, a head count observation was performed for a full hour from 11:05 am12:05 pm. Two hundred and ninety people passed through the room, of which fortysix people stopped at the case containing Panathenaic amphorai. Twenty-one of these individuals were part of the daily ancient Greece tour. It should also be noted that the famous Achilles and Penthesileia amphora by Exekias was in the same case as the Panathenaic amphorai. This vase, painted by a black-figure master, is featured on the audio tour, which likely accounts for the high viewing number.

Figure 3. Burgon Amphora displayed in the British Museum in Room 14 (photos by author).

Figure 4. A vase from the circle of the Princeton Painter at the Ashmolean Museum (photos by author).

Room 19 (Figure 5) contains sculptures and two main display cases. This room is called “Greece: Athens,” and it discusses the ruins and discoveries of the Athenian Acropolis. With entrances across the room, people entering the room had to pass by the display cases. As a result, most people took time to peruse the cases when moving through the gallery. The three Panathenaic amphorai are in one case next to the Caryatid from the Erechtheion. The vases are located along the back of the display case, with smaller objects in front. The labeling of these vases discusses the Panathenaic games, describes the images on the vases, and explains the meaning of Athena’s shield device. Head counts of Room 19, called “Greece: Athens,” were performed on May 16, 2017 from 12:42-1:15 pm (the observation ended when the room was closed due to being understaffed). There were 133 people that passed through, and 7 individuals paid specific attention to the 3 Panathenaic amphorai.

Figure 5. British Museum Room 19 (image from British Museum's Online Google Maps Tour).

Room 20, called “Greeks and Lycians: 400-325 BC,” contains six separate cases, each addressing a different theme (Figure 6).xiv Two cases contain Panathenaic amphorai: Case 1 is called “The Human Body 430-330 BC” and Case 5 is called “Athenian Pottery.” Case 1 contains a label that uses the image on the Panathenaic amphora to describe the new canon of human proportions:

Lysippos of Sikyon, Greece was a prolific sculptor whose career may have lasted from the 370s to about 310 BC. Working mostly in bronze, Lysippos created a new canon of proportions whereby the head was one eighth the total height of the figure. Lysippos’ most famous statue, the Apoxyomenos, only survives in later marble copies, and shows an athlete scraping his oiled body with a metal tool (strigil).xv

Figure 6. British Museum Room 20 (image from British Museum's Online Google Maps Tour).

Case 5 places the Panathenaic amphora in context with other Athenian vases describing its athletic pale (wrestling) scene as well as taking advantage of the specificity of the case name to describe a family of potters: Bakchios and Kittos. Room 20 “Greeks and Lycians 400-325 BC” was evaluated from 10:05-10:54 am on May 20, 2017. The room was closed at 10:54 am to accommodate the understaffed docents. Within this period, fifty-eight people passed through the room, 8 of them stopping at cases that held Panathenaic vases.

The “Greek and Roman Life” exhibit in Room 69 is one of the thematic rooms. This gallery room (Figure 7) is massive, with three long aisles of display cases lining the wall and a staircase display featuring an assemblage of Roman Glass. The entrances to the room are situated diagonal to one another across the room, and it is impossible to reach either without passing through one of the display case aisles. Two cases, Case 18 and Case 24, contain Panathenaic amphorai. Case 18 (Figure 8) is named “Boxing and Wrestling” and contains a Panathenaic amphora with a pyx scene. The case description discusses sports as a militaristic practice common between Greeks and Etruscans.xvi Case 24, called “An Athenian Festival,” is an example of a typical display format (Figure 9). It contains various vases or related athletic objects pertaining to a different Athenian event. The objects are staggered and on different levels with individual labels, and a larger wall text is located at the back of the case. When a head count evaluation was performed on May 10, 2017, 277 people passed through from 1:16-2:16 pm. However, due to the room configuration, it was not possible to track the individuals who stopped at Cases 18 and 24.

Shifting to the Ashmolean Museum, Room 16 (entitled “The Greek World 1000-100 BC”) contained one case with two Panathenaic amphorai (one being a pseudo-Panathenaic amphora).xvii This gallery (Figure 10) had a large open space with four entrances into the gallery. Because of the open nature of the room, it was much easier for museum patrons to pass from room to room and ignore the material that did not capture their attention.

Figure 10. Ashmolean Museum Room 16 (Ashmolean Room 16 n.d.).

The interpretive material sampled from the Ashmolean Museum is quite different from that of the British Museum. In alignment with the theme, “Crossing Cultures, Crossing Time,” the amphorai are displayed in a case that describes ancient sport, specifically in terms of training and competition:

Young Greek men spent time training at the gymnasium, a place of both physical and intellectual education. After exercising, athletes would clean by sponging oil on their skin and scraping off the grime with a metal implement called a strigil. Competing in athletic games was a great honor for a youth. The Greeks believed that sporting excellence, physical beauty and good character converged in the ideal malexviii

 The object labels mention that the vases are a prize (or ‘pseudo-prize’), list to whom they are attributed, and provide a brief description of the image. These descriptions are not as detailed as those in the British Museum, and they do not cover a similar range of contextual information, such as pottery traits or descriptions of Panathenaic events. When performing the head counts for Room 16 on May 9, 2017 from 1:28-2:28 pm, 228 people passed through the room with 8 people stopping to look at the Panathenaic amphorai case, which also contained other materials regarding ancient sport.

Finally, the remaining question if whether the Panathenaic amphorai in the collections of the British Museum are a representative sample of awards presented to victors was addressed in a different manner. The percentage of vases on display in the British Museum (n = 9) that correspond to each event were compared to percentages calculated by Richard Hamilton (1996) based on drawings of extant Panathenaic amphorai (n = 166) (Figure 11). Note that these calculations could not be performed for the Ashmolean sample because of its small size (n = 2). The boxing, wrestling, chariot race, and ‘other’ categories, correspond closely with Hamilton’s percentages, while percentages for running, pankration, riding, and pentathlon vases differ. Most notable is the lack of running vases on display, especially since Hamilton claims that it is the most commonly depicted Panathenaic event. The distinction between pankration, riding, and pentathlon vases is negligible since the British Museum possesses a greater proportion of these event vases. However, these numbers are skewed by the drastic difference in sample size between Hamilton’s analysis and the British Museum’s display number. Nevertheless, it can be asserted that the British Museum does a good job in displaying the universality of the events of the Panathenaia, except for the lack of running event amphorai.

Figure 11. Panathenaic Amphorai Athletic Image content (table by author with information from Hamilton 1997 p. 144-155).


The observations of head-counts and label analysis support projected findings that the British Museum’s display of Panathenaic amphorai reflects its mission as a universal museum. The Panathenaic amphorai at the British Museum were displayed in rooms dedicated to Greek history and culture within cases that contained other related objects and interpretive materials intended to educate the public about ancient athletics and the Panathenaic games. Because there are four rooms with Panathenaic amphorai that adhere to different themes concerning various aspects of ancient life, the British Museum provides the visitor with a more well-rounded perspective of the information surrounding the significance of the vases. Label content covers a variety of topics all related to either the vases themselves or historical events surrounding the vases.

With nine Panathenaic amphorai on display in the British Museum, wall texts provide multiple opportunities to discuss topics associated with vases, such as Panathenaic athletic events, the histories of Athens and Greece, information derived from vase scholarship, the canon of the vases, and the construction of the vases. There appears to be a correlation between the number of Panathenaic amphorai present in a room and the opportunity for various discussion threads pertaining to the vases. For example, Room 19 of the British Museum, the room with the greatest number of displayed Panathenaics (3), contains the most diverse information, as it covered all categories (i.e. ancient sport, the history of Athens/Greece, vase scholarship and canon) except for construction descriptions. Each topic received more than five sentences of description. Room 14, however, contains no Panathenaic amphorai. The room is very small with only two display cases, yet it possesses wall texts that describe the construction techniques of red-figure and black-figure vases. The devotion of this room to the discussion of this topic makes up for three rooms (Rooms 19, 20, and 69) not addressing this topic. All object labels concerning the Panathenaics expound upon the sports depicted on the vases, and most rooms (Rooms 14, 13, 19, and 20) discuss vase scholarship obliquely by labeling vases with the attributed painter and/or potter. Room 20 explicates this by mentioning the roles of Bacchios and Kittos as related potters.

At the Ashmolean Museum, the Panathenaic amphorai were displayed thematically with vases and other objects from different cultures and time periods. As a result, there was a smaller number of vases and less contextual information on labels. Additionally, the Ashmolean Museum’s labels and wall texts discuss all of the aforementioned topics except vase construction. However, with the two vases there are only two labels for each vase, standing in contrast to the British Museum which usually had two or three labels per vase. While the main wall text discusses the history of Athens and Greece (note that the theme of the room is the history of Greece), two sentences at most are dedicated to other topics, and, therefore, the Ashmolean’s descriptions do not provide the same depth as the British Museum descriptions.

The Ashmolean Museum’s smaller sample size and thematic display serves the museum’s teaching mission, and its small assemblages stand as parts of a universal whole. However, the Ashmolean lacks the true universality and comprehensive variety of the British Museum, which enables the British Museum to impart upon its visitors a sense of the bigger, more ‘universal’ picture. Furthermore, the Ashmolean’s renovation in 2009 reflects a new museological theory, which eschews the traditional chronological and culturespecific categories into which exhibits are typically categorized. Instead, this approach favors grouping objects according to their use or meaning. Because of the very open floor plan, with each room having multiple entrances and exits, it is quite easy for the audience to pass through each room. This results in treating the museum like a gallery, ironically in alignment with the overarching theme of the museum: “Crossing Cultures, Crossing Time.”

Overall, the vases held by the British Museum are used in a variety of displays, both chronological and thematic, and are thus able to illustrate the different facets of ancient life, such as athletic events, the history of Athens and Greece, vase scholarship, and vase canon. The Panathenaic events displayed correspond closely to the proportion of extant vases, except for running events. However, this gap could be easily remedied if the museum would place two running amphorai on display, as that would make its proportions mirror an accurate representation of extant Panathenaic amphorai. Nevertheless, the displays—spread across five rooms and six cases—ultimately provide an encyclopedic understanding of the vases and their socio-historical contexts.


The British Museum holds the largest collection of Panathenaic amphorai outside of Greece. As such, one would expect that the amphorai on display are a representative sample of the awards presented to victors of the Panathenaic Games. When compared to the smaller collection of the Ashmolean Museum, the British Museum’s collection certainly appears to be more universal. It shows the hands of different artists through the history of the Panathenaic Games, displays a representative sample of various events, and discusses a breadth of related information from production to dispersal.

Universal museums have recently come under intense scrutiny, primarily because their collections were amassed by imperial powers at the expense of the colonized.xx There are those that support universal museums because they offer a breadth of collections that could only be seen otherwise through world travel.xxi The scrutiny of universal museums and materials raise two questions: Are there truly universal museums when museums share a common mission of spreading and displaying information?xxii Do these critiques apply to a university museum like the Ashmolean, which contains objects collected during the same British imperial era from the same geographic region (i.e. the Mediterranean)?

The use of Panathenaic amphorai in this study serves not only as a case study, but also lends itself to the informal exploration of broader ideas of what is considered ‘universal.’ The British museum seeks to be a universal encyclopedic museum, and the Ashmolean is connected to a university. However, both portray their collections differently based on the same idea of comprehensive knowledge. If the universe is ever expanding, does that mean the display of universality is infinite as well? It certainly appears to be the case—with each museum grasping a different tenant of the principle. Although comprehending it seems to be a limitless task, the work of these museums attempts to capture what it means to be universal with the finite material display of human work imbued with limitless ideas and meaning impressed upon it by users of the past and viewers of today.


Alexander, Edward P., and Mary Alexander. Museums in Motion: an Introduction to the History and Functions of Museums. AltaMira Press, 2007.

Ashmolean Museum. Museum label, Training and Competition. Oxford, England, May 9, 2017.

Ashmolean Room 16 n.d., image. Available from: [24 August 2017].

Breed, Brenda K. The History of Greek Vase Scholarship: An Exhibition of Books Documenting the Collecting and Study of Ancient Greek Vases in the 18th Century. Houghton Library, 1997.

British Museum. Museum label, Boxing and Wrestling. London, England, May 20, 2017.

British Museum. Museum label, The Human Body 430-330 BC. London, England, May 16, 2017.

Clark, Andrew J., Maya Elston, and Mary Louise Hart. Understanding Greek Vases: A Guide to Terms, Styles, and Techniques. Los Angeles, CA: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2002.

Cuno, James. Who Owns Antiquity?: Museums and the Battle Over our Ancient Heritage. Princeton University Press, 2008.

Dyson, Stephen L. In Pursuit of Ancient Pasts: A History of Classical Archaeology in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.

Miller, Stephen G. Arete: Greek Sports from Ancient Sources. Berkley: University of California, 1991.

Hamilton, Richard. “Panathenaic Amphoras: The Other Side.” In Worshipping Athena: Panathenaia and Parthenon, edited by Jenifer Neils, 137-62. WI: University of Wisconsin Press.

Neils, Jenifer, and Stephen V. Tracy. Tonathenethenathlon: The Games at Athens. Athens, Greece: American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 2003.

Simmons, John E. Museums: A History. Rowman & Littlefield, 2016.


i Edward P. Alexander and Mary Alexander, Museums in Motion: an Introduction to the History and Functions of Museums (AltaMira Press, 2007), 3.

ii John E. Simmons, Museums: A History (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016), 99.

iii Ibid., 165.

iv Ibid., 220.

v Jenifer Neils and Stephen V. Tracy, Tonathenethenathlon: The Games at Athens (Athens, Greece: American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 2003), 5.

vi Ibid., 29.

vii Stephen G. Miller, Arete: Greek Sports from Ancient Sources (Berkley: University of California, 1991), 135.

viii Ibid., 134.

ix Andrew J. Clark, Maya Elston, and Mary Louise Hart, Understanding Greek Vases: A Guide to Terms, Styles, and Techniques (Los Angeles, CA: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2002), 127.

x Brenda K. Breed, The History of Greek Vase Scholarship: An Exhibition of Books Documenting the Collecting and Study of Ancient Greek Vases in the 18th Century (Houghton Library, 1997), 5.

xi Stephen L. Dyson, In Pursuit of Ancient Pasts: A History of Classical Archaeology in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 135.

xii This claim is based on a search of the Beazley Archive Pottery Database (, which is the world’s largest collection of photographs and information concerning ancient Greek painted pottery. The British Museum’s collection consists of 47 whole and fragmentary vessels.

xiii Approximately four vases based on a search of the Beazley Archive Pottery Database (

xiv Specifically, the case numbers and titles are: 1) The Human Body 430-330 BC; 2) Luxury; 3) Persia, Lycia and Karia; 4) Metalwork; 5) Athenian Pottery; and 6) Pottery of the Greek World.

xv Museum label, The Human Body 430-330 BC, London, England, British Museum, May 16, 2017.

xvi Museum label, Boxing and Wrestling, London, England, British Museum, May 20, 2017.

xvii There is only one true Panathenaic amphora in the case; the other is pseudoPanathenaic. Its small size caused me to look over it, so I spent half an hour scouring other galleries for where the second listed Panathenaic could be. Museum label, Training and Competition, Oxford, England, Ashmolean Museum, May 9, 2017.

xviii Museum label, Training and Competition, Oxford, England, Ashmolean Museum, May 9, 2017.

xix Richard Hamilton, “Panathenaic Amphoras: The Other Side,” in Worshipping Athena: Panathenaia and Parthenon, ed. Jenifer Neils (WI: University of Wisconsin Press), 144-155.

xx James Cuno, Who Owns Antiquity?: Museums and the Battle Over our Ancient Heritage (Princeton University Press, 2008), 35.

xxi Ibid., 40.

xxii Simmons, Museums: A History, 221.

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Volume 11, Fall 2017