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Race: Greek Sculpture and 'Stuffed Natives' at the Crystal Palace, Sydenham. Defining the Classical Body in 1850s London

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In 2006, London Underground was decked out with a British Museum advertising campaign featuring an image of the Discobolos, and bearing the slogan ‘Ever fancied abs that look like they’re carved out of stone? Try some training tips from ancient Greece, the culture which gave us the original six-pack.’ The campaign sparked several critical comment pieces in the press, which deemed it a cynical attempt to convince twenty-first century viewers of the collections’ ‘relevance’, deriding the Museum for latching on to ‘whatever is flying around in popular culture’. The idea that the ancient Greeks bodily resembled their statuary, and that the enviable physiques of their sculpture were a product of an athletic lifestyle specific to antiquity, however, boasts a pedigree reaching back to the very origins of modern writing on ancient sculpture.

This paper examines the fixation on the relationship between Greek sculpture and the bodies of ancient Greeks, looking in particular at the intersections between anthropology and classical archaeology, two ‘sciences’ developing side by side in mid-nineteenth-century Britain. I’ll be examining the role that the physical bodies of Greek sculpture played in defining British national and ethnic identity, and their contribution to Victorian ideas about race, health and social class, using the displays in the Greek Court and the Natural History Department of the Crystal Palace as a case study.

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