RI museums consider relocating sarcophagus

AP News
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Posted: Nov 29, 2009 4:06 PM

Gina Borromeo is well-versed in ancient artifacts, but one recent question from a museum curator caught her off-guard: "Do you want a sarcophagus?"

And not just any sarcophagus. This was a white coffin with marble dating as far back as the 2nd century that depicted followers of the Greek wine god Dionysus. It was brought back from Europe by a wealthy Rhode Island couple who donated it to the Museum of Natural History and Planetarium in 1904. For years, the coffin sat unceremoniously in the lobby of the building at Roger Williams Park.

Now the city-operated museum was suddenly willing to part with it after more than a century, deciding its mission was shifting more and more toward natural history and away from art.

For Borromeo, the ancient art curator for the Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art, the chance to acquire the piece _ for free _ was something she couldn't pass up.

"It was elation," Borromeo said of her reaction.

But the deal hit a snag last Wednesday, the day the piece was to be transferred between museums, when Providence officials postponed the move so they could "further review" the agreement. City officials did not return repeated messages for comment. Borromeo said Friday she wasn't sure what the city's concern was.

The design school's museum, Rhode Island's pre-eminent museum, has said it wants to display the sarcophagus in new Greek and Roman art galleries opening next fall. It would join other funerary objects and partial or full sarcophagi at the museum, including one dating from the 2nd century that depicts scenes from the Trojan War.

"We thought it would be best to find a home where it could be used as an educational piece and be displayed in a museum with other artwork," said Renee Gamba, the natural history museum's director. "Right now, it's not in a context that tells its story and it's not getting the conservation" it needs.

The sarcophagus measures 23 inches tall, 83.5 inches long and 29 inches deep. The marble used to create the coffin is believed to have come from the island of Proconnesus _ now part of modern-day Turkey _ sometime in the late 2nd or early 3rd century, Borromeo said. It was probably exported to Rome at the time, but likely wasn't carved until the 18th century or so, when an enterprising artist crafted a design intended to evoke an ancient era, she said.

What happened in the intervening centuries is not known, though sarcophagi from centuries past were often rediscovered and sold to private collections or moved to Italian museums, where they might have been available for viewing by wealthy Americans _ in this case, the Goddard family _ traveling through Europe.

The Goddards somehow acquired it, brought the artifact to Providence and donated it to the natural history museum.

"People who had the means were donating to the local museums and trying to amass great art collections that would rival those in Europe," Borromeo said. "This is how American museums got started."

The coffin, which Borromeo said weighs up to 3,500 pounds, includes three front panels depicting a satyr and a maenad, followers of the Dionysus. The two ends portray griffins, fabled monsters with the body of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle.

The gift would be a dose of good news for the museum after a tough summer, when it closed for August as a cost-cutting measure. Also that month, the school announced the abrupt and unexplained resignation of popular museum director Hope Alswang, drawing loud complaints from museum trustees and other supporters.

If and when RISD acquires the coffin, the piece will get more attention toward its preservation and students will have a chance to study it, even as experts try to learn more of the story behind it.

"It's a little bit of a sleuthing job," said interim museum director Ann Woolsey. "That makes it so interesting that we don't have all the answers yet."