Review: “Wonders of Ancient Mesopotamia” at Melbourne Museum

Nothing like a stimulating conversation to work up an appetite! After our interesting conversation at the Melbourne Museum, Simon Sherrin and Ely Wallis took us out to lunch at one of Fitzroy’s more singular establishments.

Helpful warning in the women’s room at Naked For Satan

After a glorious meal at Naked For Satan Jennifer and I headed back to the Melbourne Museum to catch the “Wonders of Ancient Mesopotamia” exhibition from the British Museum. There’s nothing like a good archaeology show to finish off a meal!

The visit didn’t start well.  The friendly young man hawking the audio guides caught my eye and I figured I’d get one, just for the sake of research. Then I read the sign – 20 stops, $7 dollars. 20 stops? Total? Despite my long involvement with museum audiotours and multimedia tours I passed on the Mesopotamia audio guide. I just couldn’t bring myself to pay the money. Then as we entered the gallery, there was the old “camera with the line through it” sign. No photography? Still? Even without a flash? Sigh… Things improved markedly from that point.

What I liked

The themes
The exhibition’s themes of cities, time and writing was an interesting organizing scheme that tied together 3,000 years of history pretty well. Not your typical curatorial layout, and introduced by a large multimedia projection that did a good job of soundlessly laying out all the themes.  And it wasn’t an introductory video with a talking head. So far, so good.

The objects
The objects didn’t disappoint either. The British Museum’s Mesopotamian collections are unrivalled and the 170 objects they’d sent were an impressive mix from Sumer, Assyria and Babylon. And the show displays them in the best modern Western style; dark rooms, puddles of lights tightly focused on objects in jewel-like settings. In glass cases too, which are so much nicer to look through than plexi. Nothing says class like glass! It was also impressive that the organizers were willing to include reproductions of objects they didn’t have, like the stele of Hammurabi‘s Code (from Paris), and the Ishtar Gate from Babylon (from Berlin), as well as replicas of important objects that were not part of the British Museum’s share of the original partage agreement.

Large-format print of the Ishtar Gate. Made locally, I think…

Throughout the exhibition, the media pieces were brilliant. The show featured several large narrative friezes, which had rows of figures depicting battles, hunts and other features of royal life. Next to each of these, lifesize projections sequentially played out the action so you could understand how to read the story in order. Wordless, clever, and superbly effective at getting visitors to pay attention to the object afterwards.

The experts
The scholarship on display was also engaging. The curator interviews and videos were short and meaty, and focused on curators in their natural habitats; taking tablets out of cabinets, making clay impressions in a workroom, and telling you to get really close to objects to see the workmanship.

What I didn’t like

The show used a lot of ambient to provide atmosphere. For a travelling exhibiiton, this makes a certain amount of sense. Sets and other “thematic” elements are expensive to travel. A dark room with a good soundscape can equal instant atmosphere. Most of the time in this show, I didn’t like the ambient sound. In several places, one heards loads of voices talking in unintelligible languages (Sumerian? Akkadian? who knows…) and more than once the volume of the sound effects felt intrusive to me.

Translation and the lack thereof
Sometimes they translated writings, sometimes they didn’t. Objects covered in writing that aren’t translated make me nuts, especially when one of the themes of the show is writing.  I know the organizers of the exhibition know what is on all the tablets and seals they chose to include, and I can’t imagine the contents didn’t influence their decision. I’ll never know, though. Urg.

The way things used to be done
Most, if not all of the objects in the show were excavated in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the era of the big digs, with hordes of local workers laying bare entire sites. I would’ve liked to see a bit more attention given to the way museum’s used to pursue archaeology in the developing world. Partage agreements, once the rule in the 19th and early 20th centuries, were entered into by excavators and host countries and basically divided the finds, sort of a formalized versions of “One for you, one for me…”  I already knew enough to find it interesting, but I wondered how many visitors coming to the experience with no background.

The section on the archaeologists was interesting, though I thought the profiles a bit perfunctory and lacking in critical depth. Layard did important work, to be sure. He also left gigantic holes in important sites that are still visible over a century later. Not exactly the model of scientific archaeology. Agatha Christie was married to Max Mallowan and worked with him in the field. Interesting? Yes. Worth more than a label? Hmm…

The situation today
The modern history of the area gets very short shrift – a couple of labels and a big photo –  which, given the endmeic looting that has engulfed the region in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, feels more than a little cowardly. 45 centuries worth of history are in jeopardy, our common cultural patrimony, and that should be worth a bit of space. The sites descried in the exhibition are the same ones in this article from AAM about the current situation in Iraq.  It’s not a pretty picture, but it’s part of the same story of these sites.

In summary
When I step back and look at the whole experience, it was a great show. Well-laid out, well-interpreted, and full of great objects and stories that the developers managed to bring to life in novel and captivating ways. And if that’s not enough for you, my lovely and talented wife loved it, too. As someone who gets museum fatigue very easily, her enthusiastic response to the show is high praise indeed.

Next up: Drinking About Museums: Melbourne and “Game Masters” at the Australian Center for the Moving Image


  1. I thought this show was magnificent. The pools of colour throughout were magical – I felt immersed in a different world and a different time. Not knowing much about this era, I’m now keen to find out more.


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