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Museum uses technology to deepen visitor engagement with ancient sculptures


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: Ancient sculptures at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts are getting a new look. After years of reimagining how to president the great Greek, Roman and Byzantine art, the museum has found ways to draw threads from thousands of years ago to today.

Special correspondent Jared Bowen of GBH Boston reports for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jared Bowen: This is a moment to experience the divine.

Christine Kondoleon, Boston Museum of Fine Arts: It is in the philosophy of the Greeks to aspire to be like the gods. These are idealized, the hero Heracles, perfectly muscular, Aphrodite, perfectly sensual in all the right places.

Jared Bowen: The gods and goddesses are within reach here at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, which has just unveiled a series of reimagined galleries featuring the work of ancient Greece, Rome and the Byzantine Empire.

They take visitors back thousands of years, scaling the heights of a veritable Mount Olympus and dipping into the bustle of daily life.

Christine Kondoleon: We are listening in on conversations of folks that lived 3,000 years ago, who drank good wine, who had parties in which they sang odes to the heroes, told stories about the gods, and had philosophical discussions that resulted in democracy, major drama that we still perform.

Jared Bowen: Christine Kondoleon is chair of the museum's Greek and Roman collections. She says, in this gallery of the gods, these statues represent their stand-ins, often sculpted for worship in temples.

Zeus might still be the front-and-center king, but it's the flanking gods who got down to business.

Christine Kondoleon: You could pray to them if you were sick. You would go to a place like Epidaurus and seek help from Asclepius, the god of medicine, Hygeia, who is the goddess of health. We really need her in the world today. You could invoke help from them, and you could honor them, because, if you didn't honor them, they might hurt you.

So this was part of the deal.

Jared Bowen: A formidable thought when it comes to the 13-foot-tall 13,000-pound Juno, married to Jupiter, or Zeus, the largest classical sculpture in America. She descended from the sky into the museum 10 years ago, after standing anonymously in a suburban Boston estate for more than a century.

Christine Kondoleon: My research has tracked her back to the late first century B.C., standing in the Theatre of Pompey, the first marble theater of Rome.

Jared Bowen: These galleries meander from the monumental to the matters of every day, to fashionable hair, tools and drinking cups, to commemorations of creativity and carousing.

Laure Marest, Boston Museum of Fine Arts: What really touches me, it's the human connection. It's this thread that ties you to this person 2,000 years ago that touch the objects.

Jared Bowen: Laure Marest is one of the gallery's curators. She says some of what we find here carries the same urgency it did thousands of years ago, like a seemingly simplistic triangle. It carries a much deeper meaning.

Laure Marest: It's shaped like female genitalia. And on the top, there is -- there's an inscription. The inscription clearly says it's a gift given by a woman named Daphne as a thank you to Zeus, his sisters for having healed her.

And those are things that we still experience. And when you might not have the modern medicine we have today, you have to turn to something, someone, maybe a greater someone, to try to help.

Narrator: Meet Andokides, A highly regarded master potter.

Jared Bowen: Marest was also instrumental in bringing technology into the galleries.

Narrator: In the 6th century BCE, Athenian vases were prized far and wide for their superior shapes and designs.

Jared Bowen: This film describes a fictional story about the very real and revolutionary practices at play in creating this Athenian vase from the 6th century B.C., when artisans discovered a way to depict figures in red, and not the usual black.

Laure Marest: It's not only a history of aesthetics. It's also a history of technology, because, really, this requires huge experiments in firing, in basically chemistry. They probably had to do thousands of experiments to come up with this really complicated system.

Jared Bowen: Back in the Gods and Goddesses gallery, a Roman replica of a statue at the Acropolis is a digital revelation all its own.

For a long time, I think we have all looked at ancient statues and thought, well, this is how they were created. Is this how they were created?

Laure Marest: It's not. Originally, it was very brightly painted. It's almost garish, sometimes, we think today.

And so we decided that really part of our mandate here was to convey this, because we need to show how the ancients encountered those works.

Jared Bowen: To determine how the statue originally looked, the museum employed a host of methods from old-school scrutiny.

Laure Marest: If you look really closely, for example, here...

Jared Bowen: I do see those, yes.

Laure Marest: ... you see the reddish hues. So, our lady Athena had red hair.

Jared Bowen: To special lighting, photographic techniques and chemical analysis.

Laure Marest: What especially reacted, it's a blue pigment called Egyptian blue that reacts under specific light conditions. And we did find a lot of it on the aegis, on her helmet.

Jared Bowen: It all means we may need to credit the Greeks and Romans with giving us Technicolor too.

For the "PBS NewsHour" in Boston, I'm Jared Bowen.

Judy Woodruff: And we are glad to do that. Thank you, Jared.

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