A sense of history pervades Chania old town; layer upon layer from early Minoan ruins to later Classical Greek and Roman archaeological sites, Byzantine remains, the Venetian lighthouse and shipyard buildings, wonderful examples of Ottoman architecture, as well as evidence of the destruction of World War II all survive. In the centre of all this you’ll find The Archaeological Museum of Chania, aptly situated in a stunning stone building and former Venetian monastery of St. Francis. The museum focusses on the city’s earliest Minoan civilisation through to the Roman period – comprising pottery, glass, coins, jewellery, metal ware, sculpture and mosaics. The vast majority of finds come from excavations in the city itself or nearby, which helps contextualise and humanise the artefacts on display and offers visitors a sense of where and how these items were used by people thousands of years ago. As you explore under each archway numerous standout antiquities can be seen in glass cabinets, notably a clay tablet dating back to 1450 BC inscribed with Linear A script (an early Minoan text academics have still not deciphered), decorative gold disks from a female burial site, as well as an array of seal stones offering lucid images and comprehension of each era. Outside of the display cases you can find numerous painted clay sarcophagi from cemeteries across Western Crete, stone stele (grave stones), a mosaic floor depicting Dionysos and Ariadne from the 3rd century AD, and a marble bust of the Roman emperor Hadrian. A final treat is provided in the small garden which houses an unusual octagonal ablution fountain from when the building was turned into a mosque during the Ottoman period. Costing just two euros admission, the museum not only provided much needed relief from the Cretan afternoon sun but also offered a fascinating insight into Chania’s rich and unbroken past.
Regardless of arts funding cuts, £17.50 admission fee seems a lot for an exhibition. This is made all the more acute when you realise the exhibition is largely populated with pieces normally on display for free within the museums’ permanent collection; yet this is how much The British Museum are charging for their current blockbuster ‘Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art’. Perhaps my expectations were too high, but with promises to display everything “from the abstract simplicity of prehistoric figurines to breath-taking realism in the age of Alexander the Great” I was left sorely disappointed. The exhibition opens assuredly with five life-size or larger statues including the iconic discus-thrower by Myron (used as the lead image for this exhibition), however you quickly realise the majority are Roman copies or replicas rather than the Greek originals I was hoping to see. Despite poignant quotations on the walls from Socrates, Aristotle and Eurprides, the replica’s become even less convincing in the next room as the blindingly bright colours painted onto statues and gold-leaf Helen of Troy resemble a Christmas grotto rather than an exhibition celebrating classical sculpture. For me, the exhibition also lacked context throughout and failed to give visitors an understanding of the statues original meaning, use or placement. On a more positive note, some highlights include a 1st century BC Roman bronze baby with outstretched arms which is impressively realistic, the ‘Hermaphroditos’ which looks deceptively like a sleeping woman until you walk around it and see the male genitalia on the other side, and a two inch high bronze statue of Ajax driving a knife into his chest (depicted with an erect penis to convey the trauma of the moment)! Sadly however, these glimmers of hope are not enough to make up for how underwhelming the exhibition is as a whole.