St. Petersburg Museum Reclaims Art, History
By GRAHAM COLTON, Writer, TB Reporter
The Museum of Fine Arts St Petersburg is reclaiming the past – its own and mankind’s – by digging up mosaics that were buried on museum property. Students from Eckerd College are helping in the project.
ST. PETERSBURG – Art has different meanings to different people. At the Museum of Fine Arts St. Petersburg, the Antioch Reclaimed project has different meanings.
In one sense, the museum is reclaiming five mosaics: Two had been on view. One had been in storage. And two had been buried on the east side of the museum since 1989.
The MFA is now excavating the mosaics and moving one that was displayed in a sculpture garden fountain. They’re being helped by students from Eckerd College.
In another sense, the museum is reclaiming its own history.
The MFA’s first director, Rexford Stead, bought the five mosaics from Princeton University in 1964 to be part of the museum’s fledgling antiquities collection. In 1965, the MFA opened. The mosaics were the first shipments of art to be delivered at the art museum, according to Michael Bennett, curator of early Western art.
In still another sense, the mosaics are products of a time and place not unlike our own. The mosaics are originally from the First – Third Centuries CE and were excavated from the city of Antioch, in what is now southern Turkey. To two Eckerd students, however, the historical context behind the mosaics bears some resemblance to modern-day circumstances.
“We look at these past cultures as almost primitive in a sense, but we haven’t changed that much,” said Cordae Mattson, a junior at Eckerd. “They were a metropolitan thriving city, and now we’re kind of this cultural hub of diversity. But in this day and age, it’s kind of causing more division and more problems, and it’s not something that’s allowing us to be a cultural center that’s thriving, like [Antioch] was.”
Bennett said Antioch, the first place where Christians were called “Christian,” showed the process of transitioning from a secular to a Christian society.
As a result, “you’ve got all of these influences intermingling there, at Antioch,” Bennett said. “And I like to point that out because we also live in a multicultural society…cultural innovation, and economic health, dynamism, oftentimes is related to trade between cultures.”
Antioch can be compared with large, coastal, modern-day cities.
“[Antioch] was a nexus, a crossroads of trade routes, so the city became very wealthy on trade,” Bennett said. “Commercial trade, but also a trade in ideas. It was an extremely diverse, cosmopolitan place.”
For Andy Bonsu, a sophomore film studies major at Eckerd, the mosaics are a source of historical knowledge that even the most modern, sophisticated technology cannot access.
“You can watch videos of stuff that happened 100 years ago but these [mosaics] date to a time [when] no one can even picture what society was like,” Bonsu said. “So to just stand there and just look at it, the first thing that I find myself asking was, ‘I wonder why? I wonder what it was like?’”
It is this same sense of wonder that Bennett displayed as he described the technology involved in making the mosaics.
“The Ancient Greeks had no word for art…Their word for ‘art’ is techne, from which we get our word ‘technology,’ or ‘technique.’…They assign aesthetic value to something that is crafted from individual component parts to make a whole, a beautiful complete whole.
“That’s what a mosaic is,” Bennett said. “If you look at a mosaic, it’s made from hundreds of thousands of individually cut pieces of stones that are crafted according to a pattern, and that’s what it is.”
In fall 2020, the MFA plans to open an exhibition to display the mosaics. The museum ultimately plans to display them on the walls of its Membership Garden.
Before then, they must be conserved and restored.
Bonsu and Mattson are students in Professor Patrick Henry’s Experiencing the Arts course at Eckerd. Their work with the MFA is a part of the service-learning component of the course.
“Art doesn’t really exist external to an audience, but…it comes to have meaning through your engagement with it,” Henry said.
Bonsu and Mattson said they look forward to finding new and greater meanings not in today’s technology, but in the Greeks’ technology of the past.
“The past is the one thing that has always seemed like a mystery to us,” Bonsu said.
Mattson said, “As liberal arts students, we’re able to…see these artifacts that have a double dimension to them now…There’s a whole another dimension to it that wasn’t there when these tiles were originally created.”
For information about the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, go to mfastpete.org.
Main photo shows, from left, Andy Bonsu, Cordae Mattson, and Dr. Michael Bennett. Photos by Graham Colton, TB Reporter.
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