The World between Empires: Art and Identity in the Ancient Middle East

This morning the Agade mailing list delivered to my inbox the press release for the upcoming exhibition at the Met The World between Empires: Art and Identity in the Ancient Middle East, which opens March 18. The exhibition is curated by Michael Seymour and Blair Fowlkes-Childs (with whom I share an office). To wet your whistle, here’s the signature image for the exhibition:

Statuette of a goddess, 1st century B.C.–1st century A.D. Babylon. Alabaster, stucco, gold, and rubies. Musée du Louvre, Paris © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY.

I am excited by this exhibition for three major reasons (among a host of minor ones). First, it focuses on the material culture of the Near East (especially Mesopotamia and Levant) in the late first millennium BCE and early first millennium CE. This is not a period that gets much attention, in museums or in scholarly circles.  For Near Eastern scholars this is when cuneiform finally dies out, and for Classicists it is mainly of geopolitical interest, specifically in reference to Rome’s wars with the Parthians and Sasanians or Silk Road trade. And the last time the Met gave much attention to this period was in 2000 as part of the exhibition The Year One: Art of the Ancient World East and West.

Second, the exhibition focuses on the agency of the people living in the Levant and Mesopotamia in this period, by examining how they constructed their various identities through art and material culture. Rather than thinking about them in terms of ‘Romanization’ (or its Persian equivalent, whatever that may be),  it takes a local approach, considering each region on its own terms. In this respect it is very much of a piece with modern archaeological studies of borderlands, such as those pioneered by the late Bradley Parker.

Third, it explicitly addresses how current geopolitics have affected these regions. I am less familiar with this aspect of the exhibition, but I am looking forward to learning more about it when it opens in March!