by Justin Biggi (PhD candidate at the University of St Andrews), with Dr Tulsi Parikh and Dr Alexia Petsalis-Diomidis
In the last days of June 2023, conference organisers, Dr Alexia Petsalis-Diomidis (University of St Andrews) and Dr Tulsi Parikh (British School at Athens), hosted the third Towards a More Inclusive Classics Conference, with the administrative help of Justin Biggi (PhD candidate at the University of St Andrews). This was an Inclusive Classics Initiative event, funded by the Institute of Classical Studies, the CUCD EDI Committee, the University of St Andrews and the University of Reading. It was delivered in a hybrid format, a first for the organisation, with two days online and one day in-person in London, also partially accessible via livestream. The theme of the conference was the role of material culture, bodies and their positionality within Classics—both in the ancient world, and in the field today.
Attendees and speakers came from a variety of countries (including Germany, the United States, Australia, South Korea, Greece and the UK). Testament to the broad appeal and importance of these conversations, a variety of career paths were reflected amongst both speakers and attendees, including academics, artists, museum curators and teachers.
Day One – Online
The first day of the conference began with a catch-up on previous ICI projects, chaired by Dr Alexia Petsalis-Diomidis. Dr Peter Kruschwitz (University of Vienna) updated attendees on the progress of the MAPPOLA project, focused on verse-inscription in the Roman Empire foregrounding diverse and non-elite voices. Setting the tone for the next three days, he asked attendees what it would mean to situate a so-called “ephemeral” art form (such as poetry) within the materiality of its production, its references and its historical context.
Dr Amy Coker (University of Bristol) followed this with a catch-up on the Classical Association’s Teaching Board-supported project “Inclusive Unseens”, born from the June 2020 ICI Conference. The volunteer-run project, which introduces lesser-known Latin texts to the GCSE curriculum by combining text and material culture, is aiming for a Spring 2024 publication. Dr Coker asked for further volunteer support, and anyone interested can contact her directly.
The second panel, chaired by Dr Anastasia Christophilopoulou (Fitzwilliam Museum), centred the ever-important issue of decolonisation in museums. Independent Berlin-based researcher Sujatha Chandrasekaran shone the spotlight on decolonising approaches and practices throughout Berlin’s Museum Island. She asked the relevant, and difficult, questions of how decolonisation in museums can be achieved, and whether it is possible at all, issues further tackled by her fellow panellists.
MA student Natasha Rao (University College London), brought her expertise as an intellectual property lawyer to the ongoing discussion surrounding repatriation, in particular addressing its legal barriers. In seeing a way forward, she spoke of open communication and clear contextualisation between organisational and governmental bodies, individuals and the wider public.
University of Michigan PhD candidate Ashton Rogers compelled attendees to question why museums exist, what they represent, and what alternatives exist, moving beyond a Westernised subject-object relationship between viewer and museum exhibit, and towards a recognition of the object as a representation of relationships, kinship networks and community, shaped by Indigenous practices.
Nowhere were said relationships clearer than in the final presentation in this panel. Haleh Afshar, a member of the Multaka Project in Berlin, showcased the collaboration between four Berlin museums, and migrant and displaced communities from Syria and Iraq in the city to bring their stories to the wider public through workshops, guided tours and presentations. The project focuses on reclaiming agency by the Arabic and Persian-speaking guides to diversify the narratives in the cultural space, and involve the Museum für Islamische Kunst, the Vorderasiatisches Museum, the Skulpturensammlung und Museum für Byzantinische Kunst and the Deutsches Historisches Museum.
Many of the topics addressed here were carried forward into the third panel, the first session of which addressed antiracism in the field of archaeology. Though Dr Zena Kamash (Royal Holloway University) could not attend, panel chair Dr Parikh read a statement by her, introducing the panel and asking what it means to actively make antiracism part of one’s academic and archaeological practice.
University of Pennsylvania PhD candidate Charles Ro spoke candidly, and openly, about his experiences as a Korean-born student of classical archaeology within a predominantly white field, and the ways in which the academic establishment has (or hasn’t) supported marginalised scholars when confronted with localised racisms both inside and outside the field.
His discussion was followed by Dr Dòmhnall Crystal (York Archaeological Trust), who presented his research on the position adopted by the British School at Athens towards personnel involved in digs in the late 19th and early 20th century following the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne and the forced exchange of populations. He discussed the hidden histories of Muslim labourers in Crete and their role in BSA archaeological projects.
The final panel of the day on disability was chaired by Dr Debby Sneed (California State University). The paper of Dr Katerina Velentza, a Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Helsinki, tackled ways to deconstruct and respond to the field’s systemic ableism. Dr Velentza shared how her personal experience as a chronically-ill archaeologist has shaped her approach to fieldwork, and emphasised the fine line which exists between self-advocacy and the tendency of institutions to place the burden of access on the individual, concluding that “awareness leads to inclusivity”.
MA student Max Meyer (Cornell University) further showcased the importance of disability awareness. Meyer highlighted the novel ways in which his low vision allowed him to explore the materiality, architecture and floor plan of Villa A at Oplontis, in ways likely available to ancient users. He demonstrated how such an approach enriches the field well beyond the topic of disability studies.
Dr Alexandra Morris (University of Nottingham) closed Day 1 by pushing back against overwhelmingly ableist narratives in modern scholarship, choosing instead to centre the disabled experience as both a common, and morally neutral, aspect of ancient life. In her showcase of a mould-made statuette of a child using a mobility aid from Ptolemaic Egypt, she asked attendees to consider, and even question, the ways in which we choose to speak about disability within our scholarship.
Day One aimed to bring to the table a multitude of viewpoints, voices and approaches to begin broadening our understanding of the ways in which material culture, bodies and ideology can, and do, interact, ranging from the legal to the historical to the anti-colonial. It left attendees with a renewed willingness to interrogate the systems that govern our work as academics, museum professionals and teachers, opening the door to further deepening these conversations in the next two days.
Day Two – Hybrid
On day two, in-person participants attended a presentation by Dr Ellen Adams (King’s College London) and Professor Thomas Harrison (British Museum) at the British Museum. In their joint panel, they addressed access initiatives, inclusivity projects and overall visitor trends in the museum.
Dr Ellen Adams showcased the work undertaken by MANSIL both in-person and online to increase access to museum collections for sensory-impaired people. She highlighted her collaboration with Zoe McWhinney, a Deaf poet in BSL and Visual Vernacular performer, who describes the Parthenon friezes in BSL, as well as work done with blind creative writer Tanvir Bush (and others) on the Minoan Snake Goddesses.
Professor Thomas Harrison presented an overview of recent trends in visitors to the British Museum, and in particular to the Greece and Rome galleries. He detailed work that has been done so far in highlighting diversity and inclusion within the collection, as well as an effort to shift narratives away from harmful stereotyping. He concluded that there still remains much work to be done, and asked for anyone interested to reach out to him with ideas.
After a rejuvenating lunch break, the first of the hybrid sessions began in the Institute of Classical Studies. Royal Academy of Arts Head of Access Molly Bretton guided attendees both in-person and online through an example of an activity geared specifically towards neurodiverse, sensory-impaired or otherwise disabled children and adults. She highlighted the importance of diversifying outreach, and the potential for joy that an inclusive practice can bring, asking the audience to connect through their own senses of sight, touch and sound to the art.
Dr Gabriel Bodard (Institute for Classical Studies), Dr Rafie Cecilia (University College London) and MA student Annabel Gee (University College London) showcased a variety of 3D-printed classical artefacts, leading in-person attendees through a guided object handling session, exploring the possibilities that 3D printing can hold for a more practical and “hands-on” approach towards interacting with material culture.
Day two ended with a powerful performance by choreographer/director Fleur Darkin and performer Francesco Ferrari. The work-in-progress piece, “Ithaca”, highlighted many of the themes which had been so far discussed at the talks: embodiment, identity and displacement were all placed in conversation by Ferrari and Darkin’s performances, framed by text from Emily Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey.
These hybrid sessions took the topics first broached during Day One—of materiality, inclusivity, embodiment, identity and our relationships with the material culture that surrounds us and surrounded people in antiquity—and encouraged attendees to interact and engage with them beyond the theoretical. By interacting directly with those objects, bodies and experiences that determine and shape our own work and identities, attendees were able to understand the far-reaching impact of a materialist, embodied approach on inclusive practices.
Day Three – Online
On the final day of the conference, we returned to an online format, with two more panels, and a final roundtable discussion. The first of these on Public Art and Archaeology was chaired by Dr Emily Clifford (University of Oxford). Talking about the impact of public art and archaeology, David Tootill of the London School of Mosaics discussed the impact of the LSM on its local communities. He highlighted the importance of arts access for underrepresented communities, and the role that archaeologists have as heritage-keepers, community-builders and advocates.
Properties historian, Andrew Roberts (English Heritage), offered an example of said community-oriented archaeology, showcasing an arts installation that took place in Summer 2022 with the participation of artist Morag Myerscough. The art piece, which reconstructed the Housesteads Roman gatehouse as a colourful structure, saw the collaboration of English Heritage with members of the wider community, including migrant communities.
Dr Ersin Hussein (Swansea University) explored the collaborative and outreach potential represented by the Cypriot collection at the Swansea Egypt Centre, and her work with the Centre in driving public engagement towards decolonisation practices in the museum. In particular, she noted the importance of the Swansea University student body in guiding said approach.
PhD student Alison Hadfield (University of St Andrews) discussed the relevance of materiality and material culture when discussing multisensory access to museum collections. She showcased her work with Archaeology Scotland and the Dundee Heritage Trust in looking at the wellbeing benefit of object handling and diverse museum display formats for people with early-to-mid dementia symptoms, with these objects often embodying memories.
The importance of objects and material culture as embodied objects was relevant as well in the following panel, on queerness and queer bodies, chaired by Frederika Teverbring (King’s College London). PhD student, Claire Heseltine (King’s College London), discussed the “queering” role of miniature objects in the ancient world. She highlighted the contrast between normative religious practices and the personal, small-scale religiosity of miniature god figurines, drawing parallels between the miniatures and queer theory’s approach to non-normative intimacy and privacy.
BA student, TJ Kelly (Royal Holloway University), discussed gender-nonconforming presentation in a 1st century CE burial site in London. Combining art history, archaeology and comparative religion, Kelly addressed the pervasive narrative of transgender identity being a “modern” invention, highlighting a gender diverse interpretation of archaeological assemblages.
Similarly, Dr Tatiana Ivleva (Newcastle University) addressed biases and preconceptions in both academic and public reception of same-sex relationships in the Roman Empire. Through the funerary monuments of enslaved men, Dr Ivleva addressed the need for nuance when discussing issues of slavery, consent and homosexual relationships without defaulting to heteronormative interpretations.
The last event of ICI III was a roundtable discussion, focusing on Material Culture in Classical teaching in schools. Chaired by Dr Samuel Agbamu (University of Reading), it featured Dr Peter Swallow (Durham University) and Dr Ashley Chhibber (Riddlesdown Collegiate, Croydon). In their ensuing discussion, they presented ways in which they have been working towards expanding the Classics curriculum in schools through the inclusion of material culture, aiming ground the taught material as real, lived history. To this end, material culture presents an invaluable tool towards expanding access, as it emphasises community, builds relationships and encourages visual learning, pushing the boundaries of what can be considered “canon”.