Christo­pher Allen pon­ders cu­rios­ity and at­ten­tion at the Ni­chol­son

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Christo­pher Allen

Al­pha and Omega Ni­chol­son Mu­seum, Syd­ney, un­til 2018.

Judg­ing from news­pa­per re­ports, one would think that ed­u­ca­tion must be in a state of cri­sis: our stan­dards of lit­er­acy and math­e­mat­i­cal com­pe­tence are de­clin­ing, sub­stan­tial in­vest­ment in com­put­ers has failed to pro­duce any im­prove­ment in teach­ing, uni­ver­si­ties are ad­mit­ting can­di­dates to teach­ing cour­ses with ter­tiary ad­mis­sion ranks that would pre­clude them from any re­spectable pro­fes­sion, and teach­ers them­selves are dis­il­lu­sioned and leav­ing for other jobs.

If this is not a cri­sis, it is only be­cause the word im­plies a turn­ing point, and there is no turn­ing point in sight. All the fun­da­men­tal prob­lems are en­trenched ones. It be­gins with the ATARs. There are uni­ver­si­ties where the re­quire­ments are so low no de­cent school would ever em­ploy their grad­u­ates, and you can go even lower with cred­its for be­long­ing to some dis­ad­van­taged group.

Long ago, when I first taught at the Univer­sity of NSW, I was de­pressed to re­alise that the bot­tom quar­ter of stu­dents in my sem­i­nar were in­tend­ing to be­come teach­ers: the ones, in other words, who were only just pass­ing, who had the least so­phis­ti­cated un­der­stand­ing of the sub­ject and who were, in many cases, barely of univer­sity level. These were the peo­ple who were go­ing to be given the task of open­ing and stim­u­lat­ing young minds.

Many years later, when I found my­self obliged to un­der­take a grad­u­ate diploma of ed­u­ca­tion, I saw the process of train­ing such peo­ple from the in­side and it was even more de­press­ing. The teach­ing was mostly medi­ocre and much of it con­sisted of in­doc­tri­na­tion; dis­cus­sion was rarely en­cour­aged and even more rarely ini­ti­ated by the stu­dents, who dis­played no in­tel­lec­tual am­bi­tion and were solely con­cerned to pass the course. I came to re­alise that ed­u­ca­tional the­ory, as taught in such cour­ses, was al­most en­tirely use­less. Few of the teach­ers and even fewer of the stu­dents have the ca­pac­ity for higher-or­der think­ing re­quired to deal with the rel­e­vant con­cepts at the level of philo­soph­i­cal rea­son­ing, so they try to ap­proach them with the em­pir­i­cal method­ol­ogy of sci­ence.

But be­cause these ques­tions con­cern val­ues more than facts, the re­sult is a pseu­do­sci­en­tific house of cards in which one in­sub­stan­tial study is built on an­other: the end­less ref­er­ences to pre­vi­ous au­thors mimic the out­ward form of schol­ar­ship, but at the slight­est jolt of real in­quiry the whole thing falls down.

And this is the sec­ond ob­sta­cle to bet­ter ed­u­ca­tion, the nat­u­ral corol­lary to the low ad­mis­sion re­quire­ments: com­mon sense would sug­gest that good teach­ers need above all to know and love their sub­ject, but the ed­u­ca­tional es­tab­lish­ment in­sists that the magic in­gre­di­ent is re­ally their vo­ca­tional train­ing. The truth is that sows’ ears are not eas­ily made into silk purses, and this meta­mor­pho­sis is even less likely to be achieved through a teacher train­ing course.

Mean­while, even the most priv­i­leged schools are con­cerned about the ris­ing in­ci­dence of anx­i­ety and de­pres­sion among young peo­ple. This phe­nom­e­non has co­in­cided with the spread of mo­bile phones and the ex­plo­sion of so­cial me­dia, fun­da­men­tally chang­ing the struc­ture of so­cial net­works and the na­ture and even tim­ing of so­cial in­ter­ac­tion be­tween young peo­ple. What cor­re­la­tion there may be be­tween the two phe­nom­ena is, how­ever, the sub­ject of much dis­cus­sion.

At a fairly ob­vi­ous level, it would seem that the two great causes of un­hap­pi­ness, de­sire and fear, are both ex­ac­er­bated by the con­tent of so­cial me­dia, per­haps even more than by the gen­eral mass me­dia en­vi­ron­ment. But the form or struc­ture of new me­dia may have a more sub­tle but ar­guably still more pro­foundly dam­ag­ing ef­fect on the mind, es­pe­cially of young peo­ple.

First mass me­dia, then the in­ter­net, and now so­cial me­dia sur­round us with the un­re­lent­ing, ev­er­chang­ing noise of com­pet­ing in­for­ma­tion and mes­sages. This steady level of su­per­fi­cial stim­u­lus is dam­ag­ing to two dif­fer­ent func­tions of the mind, both of which are vi­tal to the func­tion­ing of in­tel­li­gence: at­ten­tion and cu­rios­ity.

These two qual­i­ties may ap­pear at first sight to be an­ti­thet­i­cal but they are re­ally com­ple­men­tary. Cu­rios­ity is so fun­da­men­tal to the life of the mind — Plato spoke of the ca­pac­ity for won­der — that in­cu­rios­ity is a sure sign of stu­pid­ity. But, on the other hand, the abil­ity to fo­cus on a sin­gle thing and to bring the mind into still­ness in con­tem­pla­tion is equally cru­cial to se­ri­ous thought.

It was this dia­lec­tic be­tween cu­rios­ity and at­ten­tion that came to mind when vis­it­ing the Ni­chol­son Mu­seum’s lat­est ex­hi­bi­tion, and the last to be mounted in the rooms this unique

arche­o­log­i­cal col­lec­tion has oc­cu­pied at the south­ern end of the main quad­ran­gle at the Univer­sity of Syd­ney for the past 90 years. In 2018, to­gether with the univer­sity art col­lec­tion and the Ma­cleay Mu­seum, the Ni­chol­son will move to a ren­o­vated home that will in­clude the restora­tion of the orig­i­nal Ma­cleay build­ing.

For this fi­nal ex­hi­bi­tion cu­ra­tor Michael Turner has as­sem­bled ob­jects from all three col­lec­tions un­der a loose struc­ture pro­vided by the Greek al­pha­bet, hence the title: Al­pha to Omega. Not sur­pris­ingly, the connections be­tween arche­ol­ogy, nat­u­ral his­tory and art are of­ten sur­pris­ing and thought­ful. They are ac­com­pa­nied by a beau­ti­fully pro­duced book that is less a cat­a­logue than an op­por­tu­nity to add an­other layer of mytho­log­i­cal and his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tive to the ob­jects on dis­play.

Each let­ter is rep­re­sented by a sig­nif­i­cant word, which is the point of con­nec­tion be­tween the di­verse ob­jects that we are in­vited to pause and won­der at, see­ing them anew from an un­ex­pected per­spec­tive. Thus psy­che, the soul, is rep­re­sented by a small fifth cen­tury jug de­pict­ing the burial of Sarpe­don. It il­lus­trates a fa­mous pas­sage in the Iliad where this Ly­cian king, the son of Zeus, is killed in bat­tle by Pa­tro­clus and his body is car­ried back to his home­land by Sleep (Hyp­nos) and Death (Thanatos). As they lift him up, a winged fig­ure, the icono­graph­i­cal pre­cur­sor of Chris­tian an­gels, comes down to re­ceive his de­part­ing spirit.

Although Sarpe­don’s spirit is in­vis­i­ble on the vase, the soul was of­ten imag­ined in the form of a but­ter­fly in later clas­si­cal art and this is why the mag­nif­i­cent sun­set moth, Chrysiridia rhi- pheus, from Mada­gas­car, is dis­played next to the vase. The winged fig­ure, for its part, is echoed in the pair of shells of the an­gel wing clam, Cyr­to­pleura costata, from Cen­tral Amer­ica. Many items are elo­quent on their own, such as a small mar­ble in­scrip­tion in Greek let­ters, from about 18 cen­turies ago, ded­i­cated to a lit­tle child, “to Felix, the sweet­est boy”, then the ded­i­ca­tor: ho threp­sas, the one who raised him. The gen­der of the par­tici­ple tells us that it is a man, not a fe­male nurse as we might imag­ine, although it looks as if the “ho” has been al­tered to look more like a fem­i­nine. Then fol­low the let­ters MX: mnemes charin, for the sake of mem­ory. The stone is a sin­gle frag­ment that sur­vives from a net­work of re­la­tion­ships we will never know: is this the ded­i­ca­tion of a poor man to his son, an un­cle or step­fa­ther to his adopted son, a mas­ter to a slave child or a tu­tor to a pupil?

Other ob­jects are per­fectly ex­plicit but even more anonymous, such as the late Hel­lenis­tic cup with moulded re­lief scenes of cop­u­lat­ing cou­ples. Per­haps it was part of a set used in the bar of a con­tem­po­rary brothel and in­tended, like the no­to­ri­ous wall paint­ings in Pom­peii, to give cus­tomers, even for­eign vis­i­tors who couldn’t speak Greek very well, an idea of the ser­vices avail­able. This cup is paired with a par­tic­u­larly ex­plicit ink draw­ing by Brett White­ley, Lovers (1975), that re­cently has come into the univer­sity art col­lec­tion as part of the Roddy Meagher be­quest (2011).

Loosely but sug­ges­tively as­sem­bled un­der M for meta­mor­pho­sis are an­other far chaster work from Meagher’s col­lec­tion, a hand­some torso of Apollo from the first cen­tury AD, with a paint- ing by John Power, whose be­quest funded the Power In­sti­tute, and a fourth cen­tury vase from a Greek city in south­ern Italy, painted in the flu­ent but slightly care­less style typ­i­cal of that time and place.

Power’s dec­o­ra­tively semi-ab­stract paint­ing pro­vides the link: it tells the story of Apollo’s pur­suit of Daphne — most mem­o­rably re­lated in Ovid’s Me­ta­mor­phoses — and her trans­for­ma­tion into a tree by her fa­ther Peneus, just as he is about to catch her. The god de­clared that if he could not have the girl, the tree would be sa­cred to him for­ever, and that is why he is shown, on the vase nearby, hold­ing a stem of lau­rel.

The most im­por­tant sculp­ture in the Ni­chol­son Mu­seum is, as vis­i­tors to the Vat­i­can mu­se­ums may have recog­nised, an­other and much more weather-beaten ver­sion of the statue in the Belvedere that was once among the most cel­e­brated in the world, and iden­ti­fied un­til the mid­dle of the 18th cen­tury as Anti­nous, the lover of the Em­peror Hadrian.

Oddly enough, the work has been far less ad­mired since its cor­rect iden­ti­fi­ca­tion as Her­mes — though prob­a­bly not so much the con­se­quence of the new name as be­cause of the early 19th-cen­tury change in taste in favour of the ear­lier clas­si­cal style of Per­i­clean Athens.

The Vat­i­can ver­sion, which still ap­peared as Anti­nous in the mon­u­men­tal mid-18th cen­tury En­cy­clo­pe­die, also has an im­por­tant part in Wil­liam Hog­a­rth’s fa­mous first plate of il­lus­tra­tions to his book The Anal­y­sis of Beauty (1753). Here its fluid stance is favourably con­trasted with the af­fected rigid­ity of a dancing mas­ter.

The rest of the scene is filled with other ex­am­ples of an­cient grace, con­trasted with mod­ern pom­pos­ity and ug­li­ness. The Medici Venus is the cen­tre, the Apollo Belvedere on the right, the Belvedere Torso in the fore­ground and the Lao­coon, with raised arm as orig­i­nally re­stored in the 16th cen­tury and re­moved in 1957.

The Far­nese Her­cules, on the left, is seen from the back, mys­te­ri­ously miss­ing the hand be­hind his back, which was cer­tainly there from the be­gin­ning, as tes­ti­fied by early prints and draw­ings.

Lit­tle sketches all around demon­strate the im­por­tance of the ser­pen­tine line as a foun­da­tion of beauty, in­clud­ing an amus­ing con­trast be­tween a square-cut beard like a spade that Hog­a­rth con­sid­ers “mean and ridicu­lous” — hip­sters take note — with a more el­e­gant, longer and wavy one.

The ex­hi­bi­tion, and in­deed the whole Ni­chol­son Mu­seum, which man­ages to cram a se­ries of other well-con­ceived shows on themes from the Etr­uscans to the Greek Sym­po­sium into such a small space, is well worth vis­it­ing be­fore this unique place ceases to ex­ist and is re­placed by a large, no doubt im­pres­sive but in­evitably less at­mo­spheric in­sti­tu­tion that un­for­tu­nately will bear a cor­po­rate spon­sor’s name. Make sure you ex­pe­ri­ence this sin­gu­lar en­vi­ron­ment of cu­rios­ity and at­ten­tion, pa­tience and de­light be­fore it is gone for­ever.

Clock­wise from main pic­ture, Wil­liam Hog­a­rth, The Anal­y­sis of Beauty, Plate I, 1753; mar­ble sculp­ture of Her­mes, c. 200BC-AD100; black-fig­ured olpe de­pict­ing the burial of Sarpe­don, c. 500475BC; in­set, far left, Chrysiridia rhipheus (Drury 1773), Mada­gas­can sun­set moths

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