National Lecture Program

AIA Lecturer: Elizabeth Marlowe

Affiliation: Colgate University

Elizabeth Marlowe is the Gretchen Hoadley Burke ’81 Endowed Chair in Regional Studies and Associate Professor of Ancient and Medieval Art in the Department of Art at Colgate University; she holds her degrees from Smith College, the University of Cambridge, and Columbia University (PhD).  Her fields of specialization are ancient art, late antiquity, the city of Rome, Roman imperial monuments, modern uses of the classical past, museum studies, critical museum theory, the art market, cultural property, and antiquities looting and repatriation.  Her publications include Shaky Ground: Context, Coonoisseurship and the History of Roman Art (2013), and “Archaeology and Iconography” in the Oxford Handbook of Roman Imagery and Iconography (Cline and Elkins, eds., forthcoming).


This lecture will offer a new way of thinking about the tensions between those who wish to own the past and those who wish to learn from its remains. Many U.S. museums continue to collect in restricted areas such as classical antiquity; and even those that have ceased to do so, in belated acceptance of the terms of the 1970 UNESCO convention, shudder at the prospect of forfeiting antiquities acquired between then and now. I argue that these attitudes can undermine their educational missions if they prompt museums to withhold key information about the objects’ history from the public. Equally harmful to museums’ educational goals is the desire to preserve their aura of authority and infallibility. Mistakes and uncertainty are central to the practice of historical interpretation, but very few gallery labels acknowledge shifting or competing views, over-restorations, forgery, or the connection between an object’s looting and our ignorance of its ancient context. This lecture will discuss the histories and gallery labels of a number of classical antiquities currently on display in major U.S. art museums, and teach audiences how to detect instances of omission, half-truth, and even deliberate obfuscation. The lecture will close by considering best practices and presenting examples from a handful of museums that have successfully applied them in their classical galleries.

What can those of us in the field of classical art and archaeology learn from recent “decolonizing” practices in the field of Native American museology? Since its enactment in 1990, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) has prompted a radical transformation in how museums conceive of their holdings of Native American objects. Huge quantities of material have been returned to descendant communities. For the Native American works still in their collections, many museums have developed new strategies for sharing curatorial authority with members of those communities. Can this “decolonizing” paradigm help us rethink how we talk about the objects in classical museum collections? Might an embrace of some of these new methodologies help us out of the impasse that currently pits museums against archaeologists? This talk will focus less on repatriation and more on the choices museums make about which stories to tell about their classical holdings, and how they choose to tell them.


See Elizabeth Marlowe's work in the American Journal of Archaeology.

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