An essay by Turgay Uzer
As a regular visitor to the region, I have witnessed the changes in the Ephesus site and the museum over the past five decades. I remember walking over mounds of marble fragments in 1965, which turned out to be pieces of the now magnificently restored façade of the Library of Celsus! So imagine my excitement this September to see the Ephesus Museum in Selçuk after it had been closed for major renovations between 2012 and 2015. However, my anticipation turned to shock at what I saw: The new arrangement is a giant step back from the museum’s exhibition and education mission.
To summarize what is wrong: The context of the finds has largely been eliminated (or obscured), turning the museum into a glorified warehouse. This is particularly sad since the pre-2012 arrangement emphasized the context by relating the exhibits to the part of the city where they were found, how they fit into the long development of the city, and how they figured in the history of their times. In retrospect, those of us who knew the museum’s previous incarnation were fortunate because we learned so much there! I will illustrate my criticism with two specific examples.
Do you know what the Spoon of Diocles is? No? Neither did I, until I visited the Ephesus Museum before 2012. It turns out to be a clever surgical instrument to extract arrows from the human body - long and thin, and with a tiny scoop at the end. It was most famously used on King Philip, Alexander’s father. One turned up in the kit of a surgeon in the Terrace Houses. In the old museum, an accompanying diagram illustrated its use beautifully. I looked for this gadget and finally located it with some difficulty in a vitrine featuring a circular arrangement of surgical instruments, labelled “surgical instruments”. Any trace of explanation is gone, and before you smile at this label, be assured that many of the new labels similarly declare the obvious: Like a collection of gold rings, labelled, not surprisingly, “gold rings”(!).
Also, in the so-called Hall of the Emperors, there is a pair of badly damaged busts representing the premier power couple of the Roman world, Augustus and his wife Livia (they were both deified after their deaths.) If you look closely, you can see small crosses chiselled in the space between their eyebrows. In the old museum, the accompanying panel explained that the early Christians regarded the pagan gods as demons and believed that they could exorcise them with these tiny crosses. You’d search in vain for this explanation now. That these busts were found close to the “City Hall”, an area that housed a temple to the cult of Rome and the emperor, is not even mentioned. I could multiply these examples, but you get the extent of information loss.
These days, your circuit of the museum begins with a spacious hall dedicated to the monumental fountains on the city. These have been the source of much statuary in the museum, and new explanatory panels convey the (conjectural) appearance of these structures. As always, the labelling on the statuary is skimpy and in one case, downright wrong (female statue identified as “a man”). Apparently, one of these fountains featured an installation showing Odysseus in the process of blinding the giant Polyphemos. The statues of this supposed ensemble are lined up without any obvious connection (in the old museum, Odysseus held a wooden pole, which at least alluded to the story).
The Terrace Houses have expanded our knowledge about the city greatly. The new museum displays the finds beautifully but once more, without much context. These houses have a fascinating story to tell, and it is not being told properly. Take, for example, the superb marble bust of Marcus Aurelius. It would have cost its Roman owner a lot, and any museum would be proud to have it. In the old museum, it was accompanied by a photograph of where it was found: Swept into a pile of rubble, presumably after one of the severe earthquakes which did so much to bring on the decline of this metropolis. After each earthquake, newer (and usually poorer) buildings would rise on foundations of quake rubble. And this is precisely the story: How entire blocks of splendid patrician mansions morphed into humble artisan workshops and, in one case, into a sawmill. A striking illustration of the decline of the Roman Empire – but the story remains untold.
The open courtyard contains a lot of carved artworks, including some sarcophagi with intricate reliefs. Again, the casual visitor will receive no notion where any of it was found and where in the city’s history it fits in. Besides, should such valuable material be exposed to the elements?
The two statues of the Ephesian Artemis get a hallway to themselves and are lit beautifully. The commentaries relate them to the Anatolian fertility goddess Kupapa (Cybele in Roman times) which explains their marked difference from the Greek version of the goddess. Many copies found elsewhere around the Mediterranean confirm the bizarre appearance of the cult statue, a fact worth mentioning.
In the next room, there is a marble model of the Temple of Artemis by a local sculptor. Was the cult statue of the goddess exposed to the elements in a courtyard of the temple, as this model purports? Seems hardly credible, and leaves one wondering about the scholarly value of this model. Or is that section of the roof left out to show the cult statue?
The extensive and informative display of coins, both of Ephesus and other cities of the area (Ionian or otherwise), is an improvement over the old museum.
Ephesus is a magnificent site, and big visitor numbers show that there is a tremendous public appetite for seeing what a major Roman city looked like. At the upper entrance, I saw visitors eagerly clustering around the models of the city. Such models bring to life heaps of stone by showing how buildings were connected – in other words, by providing context to the ruins. That’s the kind of context that has been lost in the Ephesus museum. Visitors don’t get anything out of gold ring displays labelled “gold rings”! In contrast, they (we!) used to get a lot out of the old museum. Give more information, not less! That will make the Ephesus museum a “must” on tours of the city, and a great way of rounding off a visit to the ruins.