Spotlight on Special Collections

July 13, 2017
2007.104.22 Among the objects featured in our new Roman Domestic Art Special Collection is a terracotta lamp dating to the first century CE. Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Transfer from the Alice Corinne McDaniel Collection, Department of the Classics, Harvard University.

Sports fans have been around since at least ancient Roman times, and our collections offer some compelling proof. For example, a terracotta lamp dating to the first century CE (above) depicts the arms and armor of competing types of gladiators on its rim, while a decoration on its handle refers to Victory.

It’s not too far a stretch to say that this ornate and oversized lamp could be seen as the ancient Roman equivalent of an NCAA championship poster or a Red Sox mug—an ordinary object that declares its owner’s home team pride.

“Just like today, items such as (wall) paintings, lamps, and various everyday objects reflect the interests and values of those who owned them,” said Elizabeth Molacek, the Frederick Randolph Grace Curatorial Fellow in Ancient Art. She assembled and catalogued hundreds of additional examples of objects from ancient Roman homes to feature in the museums’ new Roman Domestic Art Special Collection.

“A lot of these objects are not on view in the galleries, but highlighting them in this Special Collection helps people understand how important and interesting they are,” said Molacek, who developed the resource with the guidance of curators Amy Brauer and Susanne Ebbinghaus, in the Division of Asian and Mediterranean Art. “People were using some of these objects on a daily basis. They’re very relatable.” Besides lamps, the Special Collection includes glassware, terracotta plates, segments of mosaic floors, wall paintings, and more.

Roman Domestic Art

An Online Special Collection

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The Roman Domestic Art Special Collection is just one of the museums’ Special Collections, which to date include resources focused on the Bauhaus, ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern bronzes, 20th-century artist Christopher Wilmarth, and Chinese ceramic vessels known as Jun ware. These digital repositories feature a focused search interface, through which users can browse objects, as well as carefully researched essays, reference guides, photographs, videos, and other curated materials.

“With a quarter of a million objects at the Harvard Art Museums, our collections can be difficult to sift through,” said Jeff Steward, the museums’ director of Digital Infrastructure and Emerging Technology. “The Special Collections are a way for us to contextualize aspects of the collections and to give people an entry point through, for example, a type of material or genre or artist.”

Special Collections are especially helpful as research tools for those who cannot come to the museums in person. For individuals who do visit, a Special Collection is a rich resource for exploring objects in more detail before or after seeing them in the galleries, or for seeing more related works that aren’t on view.

This terracotta vessel from the first century CE is featured in the Roman Domestic Art Special Collection. Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Marian H. Phinney Fund.
2000.36 This terracotta vessel from the first century CE is featured in the Roman Domestic Art Special Collection. Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Marian H. Phinney Fund.

Most of the mosaics in the Roman Domestic Art Special Collection, for instance, are too large to put on permanent display. But through the Special Collection, users can study them closely. A large mosaic from the ancient city of Antioch is a featured object, with an essay describing some of the research into its creation and history and a short video showing its reassembly (since the mosaic is now in fragments).

“It’s a great benefit that you can access the mosaic and other objects through the Special Collection,” Molacek said. “It lets visitors better imagine people using these objects in their original contexts.”

Though there’s no substitute for seeing a work of art in person, the Special Collections provide an attractive alternative—and a unique way to discover new objects. As Steward said, they’re yet “another way to dive into the collections.”