On vacation near the lovely city of Cortona, Italy (made famous
by Frances Mayes's Under the Tuscan Sun: At Home in Italy),
I could not resist a visit to the Museo dell'Accademia Etrusca
e della Città di Cortona (MAEC), renovated just the year before.
With its sharp, sober architecture, its generous use of space,
and its didactic exhibits inviting visual or tactile exploration,
the new underground section had everything to seduce me…
… except for the captions of the various artifacts on display,
which proved largely useless to the nonspecialist visitor I am.
One such caption clarified that the few pieces I was looking at
were fragments of a kyathos and a simpulum made of bronze.
I had guessed they were bronze (and fragments was obvious),
but I just had no idea what a kyathos or a simpulum might be
(I learned since then that both are basically ladles, with surely
subtle differences I doubt I could have seen in the fragments).
Hence, such a caption was not telling me anything I could use.
Most other captions turned out to be equally frustrating. I was
thus given to marvel at a lituus, a patera, and even a skyphos,
without having the remotest idea of what these objects were—
beyond what I could see, that is. Sure, the one labeled skyphos
looked like a two-handled deep cup, and I learned afterwards
that this is what skyphos means, really, but I could not guess:
for all I knew, the term could refer to the shape, the material,
the typical use made of it, or any other possible attribute of it.
To understand the terms or, worse, the combinations of them
(one caption read Bucchero and impasto kantharoi, and I must
confess that I was unfamiliar with three of these four words),
I would have had to carry an encyclopedia with me—the terms
are not even to be found in an ordinary dictionary. Even now
that I have looked these various terms up, I must say I am still
not clear on the difference between an oinochoe and an olpe.
Why would a museum that invested significant time, money,
and overall effort into creating such a beautiful new section
go on to frustrate all but the experts on Etruscan artifacts
with cryptic captions? One possible explanation is the desire
to use what is seen as “the right word” no matter what. If so,
it would not cost much to clarify these terms in the captions,
as they did once [… with omphalos (navel-shaped protrusion)],
or to provide visitors with a short lexicon. Another hypothesis,
closely related to the widespread propensity to try to impress
rather than inform one's audience, is an attempt to conceal
the museum's own cluelessness about the artifacts on display.
Along this line, the short caption lithic production (one I did
understand, for a change) seems to me like a fancy way to say
“honestly, we have no idea what these little stone objects are”.
The caption could still go on to explain where the artifacts
were found, how old ther are, how significant a find they are,
and so on. indeed, clarifying the what is the first step only;
more useful to the visitors is a so what about what they see.
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