On Thursday 7th October, Year Eight Museum Council students visited the Ashmolean to explore the Dante and Celebrity exhibition. The students will be devising activities and displays themed on the Greek Underworld as presented in Dante's Inferno for the Ashmolean Late Night Opening on 26th November, and the trip was an opportunity to meet the curator of the Dante and Celebrity exhibition and take inspiration for their own plans.
We were met outside the museum by Professor Gervase Rosser, curator of the exhibition, and Liz Green, TORCH programmes director. Gervase then took us straight into the museum. He started by talking about the role of celebrities in our lives today, and how we have people we look up to, and those we don't. He pointed out that this idea of celebrity is an ancient one, and what the Italian poet Dante was doing in his most famous poem, the Divine Comedy, was to turn people into celebrities of sorts through his poem.
He pointed out that the structure of the poem was that Dante, with his guide, the Roman poet Virgil, would meet individuals in the three sections of hell, purgatory and eventually paradise, and he would find out about their stories and why they were there. One of the first characters he meets is an old friend of his, for example, who was so obsessed with eating in his life, that he now spends his time in the inferno bloated and eternally hungry. Gervase showed us some interpretations of the poem in different drawings and texts. He told us the story of the character who carries his own head as a lantern as a punishment for being violent in life.
The artwork of an AI called Ai-da also features in the exhibition, which raised lots of questions about whether a robot has feelings and experiences that are like a human's. The students will have the opportunity to meet Ada at the Late Night Opening, and pose some of their questions to her!
After a fascinating introduction by Gervase, students were then able to explore the various exhibits in the gallery a bit further. They were particularly fascinated by a silent film from 1911 which featured Dante and Virgil making their way through the various circles of hell. There were some beautiful drawings of where artists had drawn maps of the inferno, of various characters from the poem, and of paradise as well. There was also a bottle of Dante oil, showing how Dante's name continues to be used in all sorts of areas of life!
We finished in the gallery with a question and answer session with Gervase, where students asked things like whether Dante's descriptions were 'real' to him or not, and how a robot might be able to respond to Dante's poetry.
We were also able to take a look around the gallery space the students will be running their exhibitions and activities from on the night itself.
We are very grateful indeed to Gervase, Liz and the Ashmolean for welcoming us and giving us such a fascinating introduction to the Dante exhibition. We will look forward to returning soon for the Late Night event!