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Being an Islander: Art and Identity of the Large Mediterranean Islands

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The project Being an Islander: Art and Identity of the Large Mediterranean Islands runs as a research project between 2019–2023 and as a major exhibition project between February 2023–June 2023. Both the exhibition and research projects aim to elucidate what defines island identity in the Mediterranean. They explore how insularity affected and shaped cultural identities using the examples of ancient Crete, Cyprus, and Sardinia and they also provide a platform for a debate about cultural evolution on the islands and perception of island life as opposed to that of the surrounding mainland.

The exhibition’s thematic will be explored in an interactive and public-engaging way, extending beyond the topic of the ancient Mediterranean, and will include, for example, current discourses on island versus mainland cultural identities (e.g., including Britain’s own, debated island identity) presented next to parallel debates from the ancient world.

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. 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 evident in the study of the archaeology, art, and history of the Mediterranean islands. Yet islands have been deemed to have different histories from the mainland and with more readily isolated socio-political, cultural, and economic trends.

This project 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. 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. Our research and exhibition also address several important current debates in Mediterranean Archaeology, including, the perceived disciplinary division between Aegean prehistory and classical archaeology or the descriptive, rather than interpretive, approaches to interaction. 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 reconsiders assumptions about island identity and isolation and how islanders interacted with inhabitants of other islands and the mainland (ancient Greece, the Levant, Anatolia, and Italy); produced material culture and integrated material culture from the mainland as expression of their 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.

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 any 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 argue 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, as some communities become more resilient than others at specific times during their history.

Project information

Related publications

Major outputs

Books

This edited volume is one of three major outputs of the research and exhibition project implemented by the Fitzwilliam Museum. The volume disseminates the research results of the project and includes chapters from prominent scholars responding to the three main themes of the exhibition (insularity, mobility, and diachronicity); it also incorporates a complete catalogue of the 160 objects on display as part of the exhibition. The edited volume has two parts: part 1 with 13 innovative essays, bringing together recently developed examination of insularity within the Mediterranean context of the three large islands: Cyprus, Crete, and Sardinia; and part 2 with a concise catalogue of the exhibition’s objects (160 short object descriptions). Part 1 interprets island cultures diachronically and across archaeology and the related disciplines, including those coming from the field of archaeological sciences, and contributes to the way we understand these islands today (e.g., through osteoarchaeology, archaeometallurgy, analysis of ceramics). It also draws on the field of Ancient History as well as meditations on insularity through modern art. The contribution of modern art is illustrated in the exhibition with a series of art interpretations placed amongst the archaeological displays.

Conferences and workshops organised

Invited talks and conference papers

Related work

Project team

Other participants

Outcomes of the project

Public engagement actions, events, and training programmes 

Since 2019, the project has implemented over 15 public engagement actions, workshops, talks, and seminars nationally and internationally, in addition to object-handling sessions in the Fitzwilliam Museum. Major public engagement outputs are expected as we approach the year of the exhibition.

A selection of our recent actions includes:

Funders and partners

Logo for A.G. Leventis Foundation

A.G. Leventis Foundation

Philanthropic donor

Logo for Stavros Niarchos Foundation

Stavros Niarchos Foundation

Philanthropic donor

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