Weekend Reading: The Life of Brian

This week I managed to contrive a child-free morning to visit the Hancock Museum in Newcastle. (Its name these days, of course, is The Great North Museum: but I’ve been visiting it since I was a kid, and the new name may never stick in my head.)




I should add that I did take my seven-year-old son there last week: I don’t usually exclude him from museum trips, and the Hancock is particularly child-friendly. But as my son combines an enquiring mind with a loud voice and absolutely no social filter, it doesn’t always go well. A sample:


BOY: Those are dead animals, right?

ME: Yes, that’s right: they were stuffed many years ago to preserve them.

BOY: Did the museum kill them?

ME: Er… no… they were very old and, er… died peacefully of natural causes.

BOY: That one doesn’t look old. That looks like a baby animal to me.

ME (sensing danger): Doughnuts! The café has doughnuts. Nice doughnuts, with icing.

BOY (in front of a group of women with pushchairs): THIS PLACE KILLS BABIES!!!


The Hancock has always been known for its natural history exhibits. Unfortunately we’d just seen the first Paddington movie, so my son seemed to be expecting Nicole Kidman to jump out from behind a case and try to stuff him…


I took him there to see Dippy the Diplodocus, who’s currently there on tour. (BOY: But that’s not actually a dinosaur. It’s not even a skeleton of a dinosaur. It says here that it’s a cast of a skeleton of a dinosaur. So why have all these people come to see a dinosaur that’s not a dinosaur? DO THEY KNOW???)

But this week I went back – on my own, which was much quieter and less embarrassing – to see the new Shefton exhibition, celebrating a hundred years since Brian Shefton’s birth.


I’m rubbish at selfies. No more pictures with me in them: you’ll have to take my word that I was there.


An upstairs gallery of the Great North Museum is devoted to the permanent Shefton Collection, an extraordinary group of mainly Greek art and artefacts collected by Professor Brian Shefton for Newcastle University in the course of his long academic career. Before it moved to the Great North Museum, the Shefton Collection was housed in a special room at the centre of the Classics Department in Newcastle University, so I became very fond of it during my seven years as a student there. Seeing it relocated to the Hancock is still a bit weird.


Brian Shefton, photographed by me in 2003 at an event held in his own museum in Newcastle University’s Armstrong Building.




I also knew Brian Shefton: although perhaps that’s an overstatement. To be precise, I frequently spent time in the same room as Brian Shefton, and sometimes smiled politely and muttered something when I passed him in the building. As a nervous undergraduate I was intimidated by the fact that he was more than 60 years my senior, and had spent much of those 60 years studying things, like Greece and archaeology and pots, which were still entirely a mystery to me. And of course his name was over the door, which was rather daunting…

So it was a real pleasure to see an exhibition celebrating Brian Shefton’s life and the extraordinary achievement of his collection. If you get a chance, do go along. There’s also an event in September that looks interesting.




The exhibition gives some information about Brian’s remarkable life, as a German Jew who fled the Nazis with his family. It also presents a number of artefacts, accompanied by narratives about how they came to be featured in the Shefton Collection.



The story of the lion’s head, found in pieces and acquired by different collectors. Through the efforts of Brian Shefton the pieces were reunited.


Now, this is what I like to see. Museum displays are often geared towards teaching people about the past through objects: so you’ll see a bit of information about the object, and then a discussion of how that object fits into what we know about a particular aspect of the past, using the object to represent a way of life. All very useful and informative: unless, of course, you already know all that stuff.

Perhaps it’s the rabid collector in me, but I prefer to know about the provenance of the object itself. How did it get here? Who owned it before the museum? How did it get broken? Who discovered it and how was it identified? It’s rare to see such object narratives in a museum collection. Perhaps that’s why I don’t visit a lot of museums these days.

So I thoroughly enjoyed this display: it told the sort of stories I want to hear. There just wasn’t enough of it…!

There are other reasons to visit the Shefton Collection too, of course – not least the way it’s presented. Did you know they have special myth seats? Yes: you can sit on a bench, press a button on the armrest, and hear a story from Greek myth. All seats should have their own Greek myths in future. I had a nice time listening to the story of Arion and the dolphin, since the gallery was quiet (all the families were off being duped by Dippy); although it did occur to me that it must have been quite a challenge to find a set of myths that wouldn’t give small children nightmares…








Around the internet this week…



York’s hidden Roman gateway – The Yorkshire Post 

‘Sorcerer’s trove’ in Pompeii – BBC 

Ancient cookbook craze – The Guardian 




Comment and opinion

How did Cleopatra smell? – Smithsonian

We’re not Rome – The Sunday Times 

America is not Rome (it just thinks it is) – New York Review of Books 

Old books on tv – Kiwi Hellenist 

Carpe diem – Daily JSTOR 

Sparta and fascism – Washington Examiner 

Decorative skeletons – Archaeology World

Boris, Classics and Brexit – NDTV 

Lucretia in music – Heavy Metal Classicist 

Academic infertility – Eidolon 

Machines on Sparta – Sphinx





Podcasts, video and other media

The Indo-Europeans – History of the World 

Welcoming Elagabalus – Emperors of Rome 

Seneca’s PhaedraLiterature and History 

Numa Pompilius – Ancient History Hound 

Julius Caesar’s Very Bad Day – Ancient History Fangirl 

Helen Forte on Minimus – Classics and Coffee 

… and I’ve been enjoying her ‘reverse monsters’ this week. Now you can even buy reverse monster stickers – Red Bubble





Introducing Homer’s Iliad – OpenLearn 

4 thoughts on “Weekend Reading: The Life of Brian

  1. If you want to visit that Ashmolean museum and need to bring J, I’d be happy to take him round the Pitt Rivers while you do the Pompeii stuff. Just a thought.



  2. Hi Cora,

    Spent a few days in Newcastle after Durham last year and went to this museum. Particularly enjoyed seeing the Mithras altar stones and Alan’s teaching came in handy to make sense of the inscriptions. I’ll never forget VSLM: “votum solvit libens merito” 😄

    The Shefton gallery looked like the perfect spot for a bit of quiet reading of Thucydides surrounded by Greek pots, so I settled down into one of the “myth chairs”, but soon enough there were kids everywhere hitting buttons and running off. The chairs could do with a seat belt to make people actually listen to the myths… and maybe a stop button too!


    1. Myth chairs with seat belts… Hmmm… Maybe we should extend that to vehicles, and have all cars fitted with compulsory myths… Icarus could probably be reworked into an instructive myth for drivers- and Phaethon, of course!

      Liked by 1 person

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