Both for the expert readers of this journal and for the general public, the fascinating and, in many cases, little-known objects from far beyond the canonical heartland of medieval Europe featured in Crossroads: Travelling Through the Middle Ages, AD 300–1000 are not to be missed. I caught the exhibition at its opening venue at the Allard Pierson Museum in Amsterdam. It was on view at the Byzantine and Christian Museum in Athens until October, 2018 under the rather less neutral title “Byzantium and the Others in the First Millennium: An Empire of Stability in a Turbulent Era.” From Athens, it traveled to the LVR-LandesMuseum in Bonn and opened in November 2018 as “Europe on the Move: A Journey Through the Early Middle Ages.” Organized around themes of connectivity, diversity, and mobility, the exhibition features mostly small-scale objects in a wide variety of genres, materials, and styles, hailing from Ireland to Egypt, and from Spain to Hungary and Greece. In keeping with current scholarly trends toward transnational history and “globalism,” what unites the artworks in Crossroads is the cross-cultural eclecticism of their sources. The exhibition also features an impressive array of digital technologies, some (but not all) of which enhance the viewer's experience and understanding of the objects and the arguments being made about them.
As the introductory video states explicitly, Crossroads takes on the discredited (but, indeed, still deeply entrenched) canard that Europe following the collapse of the Roman Empire was plunged into a “dark age.” In place of this notion, the exhibition emphasizes migration, contact, and exchange, as well as other modern virtues such as peaceful and prosperous coexistence among Jews, Christians, and Muslims, and among regional populations of Longobards, Slavs, Franks, Avars, Copts, Sassanians, and others. These are presented both as distinct communities but also as being in constant contact with one another through trade, travel, migration, and occasionally, warfare. This optimistic picture of cross-cultural fertilization is well supported by objects such as a copper vase found in Germany adorned with Sassanid motifs; a sixth-century necklace found in Meckenheim that strings together amber beads from the Baltic and the shell of an Aegean oyster, along with other elements of glass and copper; and an Italian copy (by Mordecai Finzi of Mantua, 15th century) of a Hebrew translation (by Kalonymos ben Kalonymos of Arles, 14th century) of an Arabic commentary (by Ibn Rushd, also known as Averroes, 12th century) on an ancient Greek treatise (Aristotle's De generatione et corruptione et Meteorologia, 4th century). The exhibition, a collaboration sponsored by the Creative Europe Programme of the European Union and involving no fewer than 16 international institutional partners, is itself a manifestation of a similar spirit of cross-cultural cooperation and exchange. One hopes that this liberal ethos of inclusivity and pluralism continues to prevail, despite the chauvinistic undertones of the exhibition's title in Athens.
The exhibition is heavy on high-tech bells and whistles. Digital visualizations can help museum audiences see and understand objects better, highlighting iconography, showing comparanda, explaining manufacture, etc. They also run the risk of overwhelming the objects, turning viewers away from an engagement with the past toward a realm of pure special effects. The outcomes in this exhibition, at least those I am able to comment upon, vary. A room-sized “Cross Culture Timeline” was projected onto the floor of one of the first galleries. Using tablets, visitors could input time and place and bring up images of and information about relevant objects in the show. But with the objects themselves beckoning just ahead and a finite amount of time on my feet available, I opted not to linger here, assuming that this digital resource could be accessed later online. I am sad—and somewhat baffled—to report that that is not the case. There is no exhibition website per se and the database of objects seems to exist nowhere beyond the space of the gallery, at least not yet.1
I was also underwhelmed by the opening video, “Travelling Through the Middle Ages,” whose main feature is a confusing map of Europe and the Mediterranean filled in with swirling, flashing neon tubes over which we appear, for much of the video's duration, to be flying at close range. The lines correspond to no historical phenomenon (they do not represent roads, for example) and bear no connection to the information—drawn from medieval travel accounts—on the voiceover. The word “connectivity” is used with suspicious frequency, and one gets the sense that the point of the map's high-tech visual rhetoric is to imply (without any explicit argumentation for) an equivalence between medieval travel and modern networks like the electrical grid or the internet.
On the other hand, the digital recreations that accompanied a handful of exhibition objects offered interesting, relevant historical information in highly engaging formats. One focused on a seventh-century sword found in an Avar chieftain's tomb, adorned with reused Byzantine gold sheets with Dionysiac motifs. The sword is literally framed in its museum case by a holographic projection that visualizes the object's biography: the gold as the adornment of an early Byzantine jewelry box in a Constantinopolitan palace, and then as booty seized by plundering Avar horsemen; the sword as family heirloom passed from dying chieftain to his son, who promises to bury it with his father's body; the Avar goldsmith's workshop where the sword and the gold were first united; and the chieftain's funeral, where the newly spruced up sword was deposited along with many other valuables in the grave. It is regrettable that the 19th-century excavation of the tomb and the sword's entry into the National Hungarian Museum—as one of its first Avar masterpieces—weren't also included as important chapters of the biography.2 But even without this modern history, the holographic video allows viewers to apprehend the complex, multiform historical processes that resulted in the object in the case before them, and the different meanings it has enjoyed at different times to different audiences. This is precisely the kind of story that digital visualizations are particularly well suited for, although this one would have benefitted from an explication of the material and archaeological evidence behind the hypothesized mises-en-scène, and from a clearer indication of the hypothetical nature of these reconstructions of past events as well. The catalogue or a website would have been the obvious place for such a discussion, but neither platform is used for this purpose.
The catalogue has much to recommend it, but falls short of what one expects for an exhibition of this scale, scope, and international prominence. The essays offer broad (roughly 4,000-word) overviews of the cultures presented in the exhibition (the Longobards, Franks, Avars, etc.) and on a handful on thematic topics (monotheistic religions, warfare, scientific knowledge, early medieval Europe in modern museum presentations, etc.), as well as shorter illustrated essays on ten medieval travelers (Theophano, Hasday Ibn Shaprut, Egeria, etc.). Written in clear, straightforward prose, these essays are geared to the general public; scholars will be disappointed by the absence of footnotes or primary sources, and by the very elementary bibliographies provided at the end of the volume. Even less justifiable is the absence of a checklist of exhibition objects. The works appear in the catalogue as illustrations of the essays, but they are accompanied only by brief captions and are rarely discussed in the essays themselves. The captions, furthermore, present information inconsistently: sometimes we are given the date, and/or the size, and/or the material, sometimes not. Oddly, what we are never told is the name of the museum or collection where the object resides today, although this can be reconstructed (with some difficulty) from the list of illustration credits at the back of the volume.
Particularly frustrating, to this reader at least, is the absence of clear information about the objects’ modern origins—whether they were discovered in an archaeological excavation (in which case, there is presumably a significant amount of secure information about their ancient context) or surfaced on the art market (in which case, there is likely none), or something in between. Such information matters for two reasons. The first is that some of these objects are very unusual specimens. One piece, called a “Rare Tunic,” is, according to the caption, unique in its napped surface, twill weave, size, shape, and state of preservation (pg 72 and 73). Its rarity prompts a critical museum visitor to wonder how this piece survived, where it was found, and how we can be certain it is ancient and not a modern forgery. The caption does not address these matters; on the contrary, it claims that this singular object changes our understanding of ancient sartorial practices (“Complete examples of this type have been found in children's sizes and as undergarments, but this heavy woolen specimen shows that they were also worn as overgarments.”). I would argue (and have done so in print elsewhere) that a single unprovenanced object, whose antiquity is a matter of hypothesis rather than fact, is perhaps not a sufficiently firm foundation upon which to build new interpretations of the ancient world.3 The tunic also illustrates the second reason why archaeological and ownership histories matter. The photo credits indicate that the piece is today in the permanent collection of the Allard Pierson Museum. The Allard Pierson is one of a relatively small number of European museums that continue to actively acquire unprovenanced antiquities, in violation of the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. Because the catalogue does not give the objects’ accession numbers, which usually include the year of acquisition, there is no way to determine whether or not the Allard Pierson's acquisition of this particular object violated that Convention (i.e. whether it occurred before or after 1970). In the context of an exhibition that celebrates the values of diversity, connectivity, and inter-cultural harmony, the possibility that some of these objects might be understood as looted cultural property by their source countries strikes a discordant note.
Despite the shortcomings of the catalogue and of some of the digital exhibits in the gallery, Crossroads: Travelling Through the Middle Ages, AD 300–1000, with its wide-ranging selection of objects from well beyond the boundaries of the traditional medieval canon, is unquestionably worth a visit. Viewers will come away with a greatly expanded perspective on the many distinctive peoples that inhabited Europe and the Mediterranean in the centuries after the Roman empire, and of their dynamic cultural exchanges.