Laudatio funebris
Highlighted Works of Art 2003 Spring - 2014 Winter

The Museum of Fine Arts closed for refurbishment in February 2015 - as the plans have it, for three years. The decision brought an end to the Highlighted Works of Art chamber exhibition series that the Collection of Classical Antiquities has organized for over a decade. As the series reaches its end, it seems right to follow the ancient Greek and Roman practice of paying tribute to the great deeds of the past while reflecting on our initial expectations, what we finally achieved, and what has proved unattainable.

The idea of the exhibition series was conceived in the autumn of 2002. It was preceded by a turn that opened up fantastic perspectives previously unimaginable in the Collection's hundred-year history. Since 1993, we had the opportunity to expand our small collection by purchasing new works every year on the international art market. These purchases were carefully planned to fill holes in the collection, in the light of its mandate to represent ancient Mediterranean cultures in the broadest possible way. Our early acquisitions were integrated into the permanent exhibition that opened in 1997. Later, however, the problem of presenting new objects became increasingly urgent. We felt an obligation to integrate them - even if only on a basic level - into the currents of contemporary culture. The idea thus arose to start a series in which invited researchers would interpret newly acquired works of art for the public within the fixed installational framework of a rotating exhibition. We hoped that this series would enable museology and scholarship to meet in a new way, just as a symphony orchestra's performances are enriched by an ever-changing guard of new soloists.

Fig. 1. Alabaster statue from Southern Arabia (Autumn 2005)
From a museological perspective, the plan was minimalist. We had a case of one square meter in which to display the pieces, complemented by two narrow panels for the most important textual references and images. The colors of the exhibitions were adjusted to the given season of the year: the spring exhibition was distinguished by green tones, summer by yellow, autumn by red, winter by blue. Each exhibition was also accompanied by an information leaflet whose parameters were fixed in advance: it should consist of about two and a half pages of text and photos of the exhibited works of art; and it should be available in Hungarian and in English. The title of the Hungarian version - Az évszak műtárgya (Object of the season) - expressed the planned rhythm of the series; the English title (Highlighted Works of Art) focused on the recognition that these exhibitions did not simply serve the aim of presenting new acquisitions. They also created an opportunity for making visible the research ongoing in the Collection of Classical Antiquities of the Museum of Fine Arts.

Fig. 2. Model sancturary from Palaestina (Summer 2007)
The visual concept of the series was designed by Krisztina Jerger, the information leaflet by Johanna Bárd - both of whom have had had a close working relationship with the Collection for a long time. Marianna Dági served as curator for most exhibitions, and the series is one of her most remarkable and lasting achievements. The majority of the English texts were created by Kata Endreffy and Péter Agócs. We are indebted to many for the realisation of the exhibitions - the full list, which contains nearly fifty names, can be consulted on the homepage of the Collection. In the first years, the entrance hall of the Museum served as a venue for the exhibition, which then, from the spring of 2006, moved to the Renaissance Hall.
The Highlighted Works of Art series thus played a long and important role in the life of the Collection for over a decade. We aimed to make the voice of the classical archaeological workshop of the Museum of Fine Arts heard in Hungarian culture, in a modest but constant way. The question thus arises: what does the series reveal about the last decade in the history of the Collection?

Fig. 3. Roman Period mosaic representing Orpheus (Spring 2006)
The list of the scholars who wrote the exhibition guides contains no real surprises. About half of the leaflets were written by those working in the Collection - most of them by János György Szilágyi. The series thus also commemorates a period when four generations of Hungarian classical archaelolgists were able to work together - an unparalleled situation in our hundred-year-old history. About a quarter of the authors are scholars from Hungary and abroad, most of whom have collaborated for a long time in our work in the Collection. Among the twelve 'new' authors we find a mix of renowned scholars and university students. Five guides were written in collaboration: these are partly the results of joint studies, and partly show the need for dialogue between generations of scholarship and intellectual disciplines. Most of our researchers are classical archaeologists, but there are also Egyptologists, philologists, art historians, and experts in numismatics or Roman provincial archaeology. All this reflects the determination of the Collection of Classical Antiquities to follow its century-old tradition of interdisciplinarity and openness in classical studies.

Fig. 4. Phoenician terracotta statue of a youth (Autumn 2004)
About half of the exhibitions presented the public with newly purchased works of art. An overview of these objects gives a clear outline of the two principal directions of our acquisitions policy in the period. On the one hand, our aim was to expand the horizon of ancient cultures represented in the Collection. We thus took the opportunity to provide a brief glimpse of the ancient art of Southern Arabia, duely famous for its alabaster statuary (fall 2005 - fig. 1), the art of Bronze Age Palaestine (summer 2007 - fig. 2), and of new genres formerly not represented in the Collection, such as mosaics (spring 2006 - fig. 3), Phoenician terracotta statues (fall 2004 - fig. 4), or Egyptian vase painting in the Byzantine Period (winter 2003 - fig. 5). On the other hand, we also aimed to acquire works of art of an international significance: this is best examplified by the 2004 winter exhibition, which showed a Laconian bronze hydria from the 7th century B.C., with unique relief decoration (fig. 6). Five exhibitions displayed newly restored pieces, and one was loaned by the Archaeological Museum in Thessaloniki, to celebrate the centennary of the Collection in the winter of 2008. The rest of the exhibitions concentrated on research connected to the Collection. Their thematic scope ranged from the history of the Collection through introductory studies to catalogues to an epigrammatic summary of the significance of ancient tradition written in the fall of 2011.

Fig 5. Painted Coptic vase (Winter 2003)
The scientific results of the exhibitions were summarized in the information leaflets - in many cases, these are the only publications of the objects available to this day. Their high esteem is marked by the fact that some of them have appeared without alterations in a book of essays (J. Gy. Szilágyi: A tenger fölött. Budapest, 2011). Others are to be regarded as prolegomena for later works, or are connected to still ongoing research. All of the information leaflets appeared also in the Hungarian journal Ókor (Antiquity), and from the spring of 2010, they were also complemented by a list of further reading. All are accessible on the homepage of the Collection of Classical Antiquities, accompanied by a (slightly incomplete) photo documentation of each exhibition.

Fig 6. Archaic bronze hydria from Sparta (Winter 2004)
The series has thus entered the main current of Hungarian classical studies (for its wider Hungarian publicitiy, see our homepage). In scholarly and museological circles abroad - as far as this can be ascertained from personal experience - the series was received with exceptional enthusiasm: it was regarded as exemplary by colleagues working in great museums around the world.
The Highlighted Works of Art series has now ended. But the need that brought it into existence remains the same: we still feel obliged to constantly bring the ancient artistic tradition to ever wider audiences. We have not given up on finding a way to continue the series in a way more suitable to contemporary needs, and are currently engaged in a search for new ways to reach our target audiences. It was with this in mind that we started the blog of the Collection of Classical Antiquities in March 2015; and we are preparing the re-launch of our virtual exhibition 'Hyperion' - continuing our cooperation with university departments of classical studies, but widening the scope of the project to a national level and making the database available in English as well. The new version will include a wider selection of Hungarian public collections preserving objects from classical antiquity: the present partners include the Collection of Egyptian Art and the Collection of Classical Antiquities in the Museum of Fine Arts, the Roman Collection of the Hungarian National Museum and the Aquincum Museum. The incentive will hopefully be met with a favourable welcome from further Hungarian museums.
We were able to keep the Highlighted Works of Art series alive for twelve years, season by season, through sheer determination, over forty-four separate exhibitions. It has proved to be a unique enterprise - as far as I can tell, it is unparalleled not only in Hungarian museums, but in the world. It played a quiet but constant part in Hungarian classical studies, and is a worthy monument in the history of the Collection of Classical Antiquities. Its ethos may be familiar from the well-known Zen tale: the Master was once asked what was the secret to his success. His answer: you need to train every day.

Árpád Miklós Nagy