Christopher Allen ponders curiosity and attention at the Nicholson
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