The mosaic displays of the Zeugma and Bardo Museums

This blog may be a practise run, or an ongoing assemblage of observations, for a minor paper I hope to submit comparing the display of mosaics at two  museums:  the Zeugma Mosaic Museum, in Gaziantep, Turkey, and the Bardo Museum in Tunis, Tunisia.

I came across the Gaziantep museum by chance in 2013, in the course of a visit to eastern Turkey to do a few interviews with people from the earlier waves of  refugees from the Syrian war, with the city a hub for some of the international organisations then dealing with the influx.

There was only a speckle of visitors at the museum.   It was a sparkling modern purpose-built building outside the centre of the city where the mosaics are magnificently displayed.   These photos don’t do it justice but they give an impression.

Gazientep Mosaic

Gazientep Mosaics Museum


Gazientep Mosaic

Gazientep Mosaic Museum

The question of how mosaics are displayed is a subject of fierce debate.   Put simply most mosaics, of the Roman era especially, were made to be on the floor, to be approached horizontally, to be walked or sat on, to be admired on one’s feet looking down,  to be accompanied by wall paintings and sculpture.  But in the modern setting they are often shown in bits on on the wall,  in the manner of paintings, with highlight pieces, particularly portraits, cut out.    They are displayed in the style of a gallery rather than a house, though the lighting is often second-rate.   The British Museum, academic critics say, is a particular case in point.

The question is how the Gazientep Mosaic Museum in Turkey, and the Bardo Museum in Tunis, approach this issue, and others, in the display of two of the world’s greatest mosaic collections.      One question is how the two chose and used their museum icons:  the so-called Gypsy Girl, in the case of the Gazientep museum, and the famous Virgil mosaic, in the Bardo.

Gipsy Girl Zeugma Gazientep

The “Gypsy Girl” of Zeugma

The mosaic is in fact thought to be a Maenad, a follower of Dionysus, dating from 2nd-3rd century AD.     It was discovered  in a building dubbed the House of Maenad or Menad.  Most of the mosaics in that building had been stolen by “historical artefact traffickers”, says the museum caption; luckily the portrait was covered by a layer of soil left by illegal diggings.        “She was likened to a Gypsy Girl as a joke during the excavations when she was unearthed with her uncombed hair, salient cheekbones, round face and earrings, and then has kept to be called with that name,” it reads.

The tendrils near her head point to the Maenad identification; but some have argued she is actually a portrait of Alexander the Great.  Her eyes follow the viewer; she has an enigmatic expression.  There’s a painterly freedom to her wavy locks.