A famous Roman artefact once considered too shocking to be exhibited is coming to The University of Nottingham as part of a major new exhibition.
The Warren Cup, a silver cup decorated with scenes of male homosexual love, was recently featured in the BBC series A History of the World in 100 Objects and has its permanent home in the British Museum. It is only the second time the cup has left the Museum to be displayed outside London.
The cup will form the centrepiece of a three-month exhibition Roman Sexuality: Images, Myths and Meanings running at the University’s Weston Gallery at the Lakeside Arts Centre, which brings together a wide variety of artefacts and images from Roman art and archaeology and investigates what they meant to those who made and used them.
The exhibition marks the first collaboration between The University of Nottingham Museum and the British Museum and will offer people in the city and region the chance to see rare and celebrated Roman artefacts without having to travel to the capital.
The exhibition is co-curated by Clare Pickersgill of the University of Nottingham Museum, Dr Paul Roberts of the Department of Greece and Rome, British Museum in collaboration with Manuscripts and Special Collections, University of Nottingham
Dr Roberts said: “When we think about the Romans we think of gladiators, emperors and soldiers, but this exhibition focuses on ordinary people — and a fundamental part of their lives.
“Roman writers had set views on sex but objects like the Warren Cup or even humble oil lamps tell a different, more diverse, story. These objects — and people’s reactions to them — also make us think about issues of sexuality in our society.”
The Warren cup was made in around 15BC–AD15 and believed to have been found at Bittir near Jerusalem. It is named after the American Edward Warren who purchased it in 1911. Warren was one of the most well-known collectors of his day — other famous pieces in his collection included Rodin’s The Kiss, now on display in the Tate Modern Gallery in London, and the painting of Adam and Eve by Lucus Cranach, now at London’s Courtauld Institute.
Following Warren’s death, the cup was offered to several institutions, including the British Museum, but was considered too sexually explicit to display and none would take it. In 1953, the cup was turned away from the United States after its images offended the sensibilities of a customs official.
Only in 1999, following major changes in the law and public attitudes towards homosexuality, was the Cup finally given a permanent home in the British Museum, where it is now one of its most celebrated and discussed pieces.
The new exhibition begins by looking at how Victorian attitudes have affected the way we have collected, displayed and studied objects like the Warren Cup and looks at all aspects of love and sex in the Roman world including the gods, goddesses and myths associated with sexuality.
The Roman world was more comfortable with sexual imagery than many other cultures. Roman art, from luxury items such as the Warren Cup, to wall paintings, sculpture and everyday tableware and lamps, was filled with depictions of the body and human intimacy. The Romans, like the Greeks, believed that sex and sexuality were governed by several deities, including Venus, goddess of love, and Bacchus, god of wine and fertility, and their images fill Roman art and mythology.
In addition, the exhibition features objects which to modern eyes may appear to be sexual but to the Romans conveyed other meanings connected to fertility, superstition or humour.
Terracotta body parts such as wombs or breasts, and figurines showing birth or nursing mothers were common offerings at temples and shrines and also graves. Superstition provided the largest body of sexual imagery. Images of the phallus were made from materials including gold and bronze, pottery, bone and coral. Statuettes, plaques, mosaics, shop signs, tintinabula (wind chimes) and jewellery were used to protect businesses, households, children and even animals.
Clare Pickersgill said: “The University Museum currently displays a wide variety of Roman artefacts from regional excavations, especially Margidunum at Bingham, that show many aspects of everyday life. This exhibition enables another Roman topic, not commonly discussed and often misunderstood, to be explored.”
The exhibition also contains objects from The University of Nottingham Manuscripts and Special Collections Department alongside pieces from Nottingham City Museums and Galleries and the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Cambridge.
Roman Sexuality: Images, Myths and Meanings runs at the Weston Gallery, Lakeside Arts Centre, University Park campus from January 14 2011 to April 11 2011 and is open Monday to Friday 11am to 4pm and Saturday and Sunday from 12pm to 4pm.
A series of lectures and gallery talks are planned to accompany the exhibition and more information can be found at http://www.lakesidearts.org.uk/Exhibitions.html
Entry to the exhibition is free but please note that the explicit imagery on some exhibits may be unsuitable for children and it is advised that adults accompany children under the age of 16.
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Notes to editors: Images from the exhibition are available on request. Please credit the Trustees of the British Museum.
About the University of Nottingham Museum: The museum has a permanent display of archaeological artefacts from the East Midlands, showing everyday life in the region over a period of 250,000 years, It also exhibits some objects from Italy, Cyprus and Egypt.
The museum won the Renaissance East Midlands Nottinghamshire Heritage Museum of the Year Award in 2010. It gained full Museum, Library and Archive Accredited Status in 2010 and offers a wide variety of education and outreach projects to local and regional communities.
About The University of Nottingham: The University of Nottingham, described by The Times as “the nearest Britain has to a truly global university”, has award-winning campuses in the United Kingdom, China and Malaysia. It is ranked in the UK's Top 10 and the World's Top 75 universities by the Shanghai Jiao Tong (SJTU) and the QS World University Rankings.
The University is committed to providing a truly international education for its 39,000 students, producing world-leading research and benefiting the communities around its campuses in the UK and Asia.
More than 90 per cent of research at The University of Nottingham is of international quality, according to the most recent Research Assessment Exercise, with almost 60 per cent of all research defined as ‘world-leading’ or ‘internationally excellent’. Research Fortnight analysis of RAE 2008 ranked the University 7th in the UK by research power.
The University’s vision is to be recognised around the world for its signature contributions, especially in global food security, energy & sustainability, and health.