‘Being an Islander: Art and Identity of the Large Mediterranean Islands’ at The Fitzwilliam Museum


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‘Being an Islander: Art and Identity of the large Mediterranean Islands’ runs as a research project between 2019 and 2023, with a major exhibition at The Fitzwilliam Museum opening on 21 February 2023 and closing on 4 June 2023. Both the exhibition and research project, together with corresponding outreach activities, aim to elucidate what defined island identities in the Mediterranean. They explore how insularity affected and shaped cultural identity using the examples of Crete, Cyprus, and Sardinia, and provide a platform to debate cultural evolution in the islands as opposed to the surrounding mainland. The exhibition will extend beyond the topic of the Ancient Mediterranean, incorporating the current perceptions of and discourses about island versus mainland cultural identities (e.g. including Britain’s own, debated island identity). 

Exhibition Banner [Credit: The Fitzwilliam Museum]

Research background

Throughout history, islands have been treated as distinct places, unlike mainland and continental masses. In geographic terms, islands are merely pieces of land surrounded by water, but the perception of island life has never been neutral. Rather, the term ‘insularity’ – belonging to/being of an island – has been romanticised and associated with otherness. Islands have often been deemed to have different histories from the mainland and with more readily isolated socio-political, cultural, and economic characteristics.Yet, connectivity has also been an important feature of island life as the sea can be a linking rather than just a dividing body, motivating and maintaining informal and formal connections. This has been made evident by the flourishing studies of the archaeology, art, and history of the Mediterranean islands.

‘Islanders The Making of the Mediterranean’ looks at the making of the Mediterranean islands of Cyprus, Crete and Sardinia. Take a 4,000-year journey from life in the ancient Mediterranean to today through more than 200 extraordinary antiquities, many seen in the UK for the first time [Credit: The Fitzwilliam Museum]

‘Being an Islander: Art and Identity of the large Mediterranean Islands’ has a broad diachronic scope and applies integrative analytical approach. Our exhibits will integrate research findings from scientific fields within archaeology, such as ceramics studies, archaeobotany, and archaeometallurgy, as well as its multi-scalar approaches to past human interaction within continental and island environments. They will also engage works of modern artists whose creations contemplate what belonging to an island means. The exhibition and research mostly confront the perception that ‘being an islander’ is a distinctive attribute or a set of well-defined characteristics. Instead, we argue, ‘being an islander’ is a highly fluid state of being, whether consciously or not, both in the past and the present. Through key artefacts and interactive installations the exhibition makes a case for thinking of the Mediterranean regions surrounding this dynamic body of water in terms of connectivity and mobility rather than through the entrenched disciplinary divides and modern political boundaries. 

Redefining insular identity

The large Mediterranean islands have often been given a special status due to their size, biodiversity, and cultural elaboration, but at no point in antiquity were they coherent social or cultural entities with fixed borders. Even though symbolic boundaries can be maintained more easily when coinciding with firm physical boundaries of land and sea, there is much diversity within them, with social, cultural, economic, and political networks stretching beyond their limits. Likewise, the social and cultural identities of their inhabitants were multiple, ever-changing, and continually negotiated.

This project explores island identities and how islanders of Crete, Cyprus, and Sardinia interacted with inhabitants of other islands and the mainland (ancient Greece, the Levant, Anatolia, and Italy); how they produced and integrated material culture from their neighbours as an expression of their own identities; and, most importantly, the way they fashioned and shaped their distinct social and cultural identities as islanders. We explore these parameters through specific case-studies using objects from Crete, Cyprus, and Sardinia, and the understating that the degree of the islanders’ openness as well as the intensity of their connections fluctuated over time depending on historical circumstances and social agency.

Islanders: The Making of the Mediterranean – Exhibition Walkthrough [Credit: The Fitzwilliam Museum]

Understanding mobility 

Our secondary aim is to reframe mobility as one of the defining characteristics of the ancient Mediterranean insular societies. While the intensity of this phenomenon may have varied through time and space and not all members of a particular community or island may have shared equally in it, mobility – and the connectivity it engendered – endowed the region with its particular characteristics. Contributors to the research project – in the form of research collaborations, chapters in an edited volume, and papers that will be delivered at a conference accompanying the opening of the exhibition, in addition to other outputs – debate and expand on the notions of mobility and connectivity. With specific temporal and geographical case studies from the three islands, they all demonstrate that both mobility and connectivity are important features of island life, motivating and maintaining informal and formal connections. The case studies additionally elucidate the interplay between mobility, connectivity, and resilience, all aspects of insular life that waxed and waned throughout history. 

The exhibition, curated by Dr Anastasia Christophilopoulou in partnership with the Ambassador of Greece to the United Kingdom and the High Commissioner of Cyprus in the United Kingdom, is part of the ‘Being an Islander: Art and Identity of the Large Mediterranean Islands’ project, 2019 – 2023.

The exhibition is organised in partnership with the Ministry of Culture and Sports, Greece; the Department of Antiquities, Ministry of Transport, Communications and Works, Cyprus; and the National Archaeological Museum, Cagliari, Sardinia.

Source: The Fitzwilliam Museum [January 19, 2023]



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