The Joy of Museums

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Finding Meaning at the British Museum

Demeter and Persephone - Pediment Sculptures of the Parthenon - British Museum - Joy of Museums

Finding Meaning at the British Museum

Central London is home to one of the world’s most famous museums, the British Museum. Established in 1753, it is one of the oldest public museums in the world. Containing over seven million objects covering a period of two million years of global human and cultural history it can become overwhelming. The secret to finding meaning at the British Museum is to experience one masterpiece at a time and accept that it would take a lifetime to appreciate all that the museum has to offer.

A meaningful museum experience requires a mindful approach to paying full attention to the current immediate experience. When you get tired of the crowds or become overwhelmed by the breadth of history and exhibits visit The Parthenon Marbles to regain your balance. Walk deliberately and with deep breaths to the east pediment sculptures, which presents a scene of the major ancient Greek gods and goddesses portrayed as if they were present during the birth of Athena. Slowly walk behind the statues to the two draped female figures seated on rectangular wooden chests.

These female figures represent Demeter and her daughter Persephone. Originally these sculptures were set high above into the Parthenon pediment. No one could see this back view except the Olympian Gods. These statues were visible only from the front. The back view was not originally accessible to mortals. You are privileged to be able to see this view. Let’s meditate on what only the Olympian Gods were meant to see.

Notice the beautiful and flowing folds of the tunics. The figures are lifelike ready to move or stand up or turn around and object to your mortal presence. Mother and daughter are united as one. Notice the beauty and nobility of the body. Imagine that you are on Mount Olympus watching history unfold as confidently as these ancient marbles. Reflect on what you can see beyond these statues look at the vast hall containing the Pathernon Mables.

In the ancient Greek religion and mythology, Demeter, Zeus’ sister, is the goddess of the harvest and agriculture, she presided over grains and the fertility of the earth. She and her daughter Persephone were the central figures of an earlier mythology that predated the Olympian pantheon of Gods. The myth about these two figures is that Demeter’s virgin daughter Persephone was abducted by Hades, God of the underworld. Demeter was distraught and searched everywhere for her. Demeter was inconsolably preoccupied with her loss and her grief. The seasons failed, living things stopped growing and began to die. Faced with extinction on earth, Zeus, the king of all the gods, sent his messenger, Hermes to the underworld to bring Persephone back to Demeter. Hades agreed to release her if she had not eaten anything while in Hades, unfortunately, Persephone had eaten pomegranate seeds. This indiscretion condemned Persephone to Hades and the underworld for a certain of months every year.

Every Spring, Demeter would make sure flowers bloomed and crops grew and the fields were green. Every Winter, when Persephone returned to the underworld, Demeter would ignore the crops and the flowers and let them die. Each Spring, Demeter would bring everything to life again, ready to welcome her daughter’s return.

These Parthenon sculptures capture the culture and spirit of the Golden Age of Athens. A culture that celebrated the beauty and the heroism in life. We in modern times have many more opportunities and resources available than the ancient Athenians. Meditating on these sculptures allows us to reflect on the beauty in our lives and how we can bring more heroism and nobility to our lives. Continuing to reflect on the two draped female figures we notice how close the two bodies are compared to the other figures in the pediment sculptures.

Reconstruction of the east pediment of the Parthenon 3

Above we can see one possible reconstruction of the front of the east pediment of the Parthenon, highlighting the comfortable and familiar body language between Demeter and Persephone.

The Myth of Demeter and her daughter Persephone reminds us of the different kinds of love in the world. It reminds us that when someone we love is missing, the world does feel like winter.  It reminds us of the anticipation of reuniting with someone we love and how it feels like spring.

What other reflections come to your mind when you meditate on these masterpieces from over 2,5000 years ago and the culture of Ancient Greece?

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“The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” Socrates

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Photo Credit: 1)JOM 2) By Tilemahos Efthimiadis [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons