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The Search for Ancient Art

Dr. Stephen BorysWAG Director & CEO

Berlin MuseumWith architect Michael Maltzan (left) in front of the Altes Museum, Berlin. 

It helps being in the right place at the right time, especially when you’re scouting for great exhibitions for the WAG. This was my fortune a couple of summers ago when I was in Berlin, meeting with museum colleagues and touring several new and renovated museum buildings with the architects for the new Inuit Art Centre. This is where Olympus: The Greco-Roman Collections of Berlin first took shape for the WAG.  Vying for my attention with the stunning architecture of Berlin’s historic and contemporary museum buildings was the extraordinary cultural offerings found within these spaces, particularly the Antikensammlung der Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (Collection of Classical Antiquities of the National Museums in Berlin). The Neues Museum, Altes Museum, and the Pergamonmuseum, all situated on Berlin’s Museum Island, are home to the Antikensammlung. The dream began on that visit, and two years later, Olympus is opening at the WAG with 160 ancient Greek and Roman artworks drawn from these three national museums.

Berlin MuseumProf. Dr. Andreas Scholl, Director of the Collection of Classical Antiquities, National Museums in Berlin) (far right) with colleagues at the Altes Museum, Berlin.

One of my primary goals as director of the WAG is to engage with people and communities through art and culture – using art as the lens, vehicle and forum. You could say that every exhibition we present at the Gallery offers us the chance to connect with more people, but every once and awhile we do something in a big way that we hope will encompass many communities, demographics and generations. Olympus is one of those projects that brings people together to share in the creativity and beauty of humankind, as seen through the art of ancient civilizations, which just happen to be very relevant today. Why should an exhibition of artworks dating back twenty-five centuries appeal to audiences today? You don’t have to look long or hard at the Greco-Roman period to find the many influences and links with our contemporary lives and world. The works included in the exhibition link us directly to the birthplace of Western architecture, language, law, medicine, sport, theatre, and much more that has come to define the heartbeat of modern culture. And from the time of Homer and Hesiod, classical myths and legends have remained a source of inspiration and discovery, sustained in part by a legacy of artistic expression and innovation. 

Berlin MuseumA view inside the Altes Museum, Berlin.

Olympus features over 160 works dating from the seventh century BC to the second century AD, including marble statues and reliefs, bronze statuettes, terracotta vases, and jewellery. Rarely seen outside of Europe, the collection is one of the most significant classical antiquities holdings worldwide. Originating in the 17th century with the Electors of Brandenburg, the Berlin collection was built over three centuries and completed largely by 1900. It’s presentation at the Musée de la civilisation in Québec City and now at the WAG marks the first time a major exhibition from the Antikensammlung Berlin has been presented in North America. The arrival of Olympus in Winnipeg also ends a fifty-year antiquities drought in the city. In December 1964, the WAG presented The Treasures of Tutankhamun, an exhibition of 34 artifacts from the tomb of King Tut, which traveled to six venues in Canada. Fifty years later, a breathtaking exhibition of classical antiquities from one of the most prestigious collections in the world has come to Winnipeg.  From King Tut to the gods and goddesses of the Greco-Roman world, the WAG has linked two generations of gallery visitors and over fifteen centuries of art and artifacts from three ancient civilizations. Enjoy!