Twice as much space for classical antiquities

Is a Roman bronze archaeology or art?


New York

Carlos Picon, a thirty-six year old scholar born in Puerto Rico, has taken up the senior post of curator in charge of the Metropolitan Museum’s superb collection of classical material, in succession to Dietrich von Bothmer, head of the department since 1973 and now Curator Emeritus. A three-year stint at the San Antonio Museum of Art in Texas, where he created a new wing to house the museum’s growing collection of ancient art, showed that he had the talent so essential in US museums to enthuse collectors and donors. His studies under John Boardman at Oxford University and his catalogue of archaic sculpture for the British Museum are among his scholarly credentials.

His first exhibition since joining the Met in May will be on display there until 27 January 1991. It shows the large and diverse collection of Shelby White and Leon Levy, both New York business people and amateur archaeologists. It is they who are funding the excavation at Ashkelon, the Middle Bronze Age site in Israel where the "golden calf" was found this summer, curiously enough, on a day when they themselves were taking part in the dig. Picon believes that this exhibition will encourage more private collectors to enter the field. “I feel that there is an upsurge of interest in antiquities as a collecting area. It is a field which until recently has been more or less dormant in terms of private collectors and even in terms of museums. But now it’s becoming very much alive”. Mr Picon needs the support of collectors because his brief is to raise the money for a large scale expansion of the entire collection. “We shall be showing much, much more, as we are almost doubling our space, and will be able to get many things out of store. There is a building schedule that involves moving the restaurant to two new restaurants that are being built, and I suspect it will be within the next two years. We are gaining back what used to be the Roman Sculpture Court, which was never intended to be a restaurant”.

As when the Egyptian collection was redisplayed some fifteen years ago, all exhibits must undergo conservation first. “This involves everything from plain housekeeping and cleaning to more serious problems involving eighteenth-century restoration”.

He says that the Met does not have enough conservators to do this, but that he intends to find them. “It is a wonderful opportunity to co-ordinate with the conservation teams at New York University, for instance; to make sure that we not only provide enough work for the conservation crew there, but also, perhaps, even train a whole new generation in the field”. Picon, who is particularly interested in historic collections of antiquities, such as those in English country houses, feels that the archaeological approach has been over-emphasised, and he would like antiquities to be viewed also as art, without, however, neglecting their archaeological context. “If you present, very beautifully, five or six objects and make available 400 or 500 more, perhaps the general public will look at them more closely than if they are confronted with rows of Roman bronzes. It’s a matter of labelling and a matter of lighting”.

He refused to be drawn on the subject of the black market and whether, if numerous private collectors enter the field of antiquities, they will not be contributing to the destruction of the very context which makes the objects so interesting. “That is a very complicated issue which has been discussed at great length, lastly at the Getty in a symposium on collecting a year and a half ago. It is something on which I would rather not comment.”