Appropriating Antiquity: Greco-Roman Sculpture and the British Public 1770-1900

The Apollo Recess with Apollo Belvedere. Photograph: Derry Moore. Courtesy of the Trustees of Sir John Soane's Museum.

The Apollo Recess with Apollo Belvedere.
Photograph: Derry Moore.
Courtesy of the Trustees of Sir John Soane’s Museum.

While history of collections as a discipline has gained prominence in recent years the study of the legacies collecting has imbedded in modern museums has yet to be undertaken. Building upon existing studies of collecting and drawing on interdisciplinary studies of Art History, Classical Reception and Museum Studies I hope to chart the changing understanding and engagement with art and antiquity in the display and arrangement of Greco-Roman sculpture in eighteenth and nineteenth century public museums and the ways in which they became absorbed into the developing British Culture. Through the collection and acquisition of historical objects, museums were able to establish themselves as integral to modern culture by alienating objects from their origins. This established the objects with several contested identities that were closely tied to dominant ideologies of the period such as Romanticism and Imperialism.

I hope to analyse the interplay between contemporary discussions on art theory and criticism with the display of sculptural antiquities. I will assess how far these discussions included and influenced public reception and its influence on the development of specialisation in knowledge and expertise in the field of antiquities. This will allow me to assess the issues of value, ownership and national identity within British heritage institutions.

This will be done through particular focus on the collections of the British Museum, the Fitzwilliam Museum and Sir John Soane’s House Museum. This will allow me to cover a broad range of sculptural pieces from fragmentary to reconstructed works, looking at their changing arrangement and descriptions and their legacies as part of the major museum collections of sculptural works. These institutions also allow me to focus on the legacy of collecting and collectors as large parts of their collections originate from private collectors such as Charles Townley, Sir John Soane and John Disney.

Antiquity as Heritage Studies

By situating my study in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries I will be able to look at the period in which the creation of modern Britain began and how museum collections helped to establish this. My thesis hopes to explore the legacies of the cultural imperialism of Britain in this period and the implications this has for contemporary heritage institutions. It will explore how these objects of foreign heritage became appropriated and absorbed into British culture, alienating them from their origins and therefore becoming part of British heritage. A main theme of exploration is how this culture of commodification and alienation of artefacts has far reaching effects in the way collections are viewed in modern heritage exhibits. It will also allow me to explore the ways in which collectors, curators and the public have been able to leave a mark on antiquity collections, impacting complex current debates on cultural property and restitution of ancient artefacts and how heritage institutions of today and of the future engage with these discussions.


In 2013 I completed a BA(Hons) from the University of Swansea, Wales, in Joint Honours Classical Civilisations & Egyptology. I then went on to study a Masters by Research in Classical Reception at Royal Holloway, University of London where I received the Classics department scholarship. My Masters dissertation (supervised by Professor Richard Alston) explored the ways in which the idealised Roman republican senator came to be used as a basis for constructing elite masculinity in the eighteenth century, using the building and decoration of Holkham Hall in Norfolk as a case study.

Currently I am a PhD student as part of the AHRC Heritage Consortium, and am based at the University of Hull. I am supervised by Professor Peter Wilson and co-supervised by Dr Claudine van Hensbergen at Northumbria University.

Twitter: @tinyhistorian