Inspired by film, "Crossroads" curator Lupton crafts the story of history
Ever since he was a kid, Carter Lupton has loved seeing stories told on the big screen. He still remembers his first exposure to ancient Greek culture and mythology came as a 10-year-old when "Hercules" starring Steve Reeves premiered in Milwaukee at the old Warner Theater in 1959. Soon, a whole flock of sword-and-sandal historical epics arrived in theaters much to the delight of young Lupton.
"I remember once when I was a teenager, an uncle of mine said to me, 'Well I used to like to go to movies when I was 15 too; all 15-year-olds do, but you'll outgrow it,'" Lupton jokingly recalled.
Lupton never ended up outgrowing his love of film, however. He still sees movies regularly and keeps up with the latest production news coming out of Hollywood. In fact, that first big screen exposure to ancient culture eventually guided Lupton to where he is now, helping to craft and tell stories of his own – the ultimate story: history – as the lead curator for the Milwaukee Public Museum's "Crossroads of Civilization," the museum's first new permanent exhibition in more than a decade.
Opening to the public on Sunday, March 15, "Crossroads of Civilization" actually serves as a kind of updated rendition of the old "Temples, Tells and Tombs" permanent exhibit, which was closed in the beginning of 2008.
"The old exhibit came down – nothing was wrong with it; it only went up in '91, in fact – because, starting about 10 years ago in 2004, we found that we were starting to bring in a lot of big travelling exhibits," Lupton explained. "We had ones on Egypt and the Vatican and Body Worlds and Titanic, and they were getting physically bigger and bigger. And if we didn't have a big space devoted to switching those exhibits around, we couldn't take them."
Lupton had seen other museums deal with similar situations by exhaustingly spreading a single exhibit across several floors, so that idea was off the table. The MPM's then strategy of repeatedly taking "Temples, Tells and Tombs" down for large travelling exhibits, however, was no less of hassle for the museum.
"By 2007, when it was going to happen a third time, I said this is crazy," Lupton said. "It's bad for the objects, all this movement; these are pretty fragile things, a lot of them. The public was starting to get confused. So I thought what we really needed was a new space.
"It's important to have it," he continued. "We had to have it because it's so important to the school kids of his region. All the middle school kids study the ancient world, particularly Egypt, so it's always been important that we have as much of this stuff on exhibit as possible. We didn't want to let it languish in storage."
As a result, over the last several years, Lupton and the Milwaukee Public Museum have worked to bring a new history of civilization exhibit to the former education department (now located on the ground floor). While workers revamped the space, Lupton worked on the story and structure being told throughout the exhibit – which starts with an interactive digital timeline spanning 4,000 years of history. It takes Lupton about 30 minutes to read through all the material available in the timeline; for those going in cold, however, he suspects it could take even longer to peruse through all of its photos and factoids. Or not.
"You can spend as much time or as little time with it as you want," Lupton said. "My wife was in here for the first time last week, and she said, 'Where do I start?' I said, 'You don't start anywhere; you can start wherever you want.'"
After the timeline – serving as an interactive introduction and extra context – comes the meat of "Crossroads of Civilization," a packed collection of models, artifacts and fascinating information. The organization, however, is not what many may expect. Instead of being divided by geographic region, culture or chronology, Lupton organized the exhibit by overall themes, such as construction, community, conflict, commerce or religion. According to the curator, those common divisions are "sort of artificial" and don't take into account the common interaction between groups. Civilizations rarely exist in their own impenetrable bubbles.
"As I started to think about all of these connections – through trade, through warfare and whatnot – I started thinking along the line of crossroads," Lupton said. "That's why we got the title 'Crossroads of Civilization.' This is really centered on the Mediterranean more or less – everything to the east of it, to the north and the south of it. They all come together there, and they fertilized each other. They built on each other. It truly was a crossroads, both physically and intellectually."
The exhibit serves as a kind of crossroads of new and old considering the displays as well. Old artifacts share space with new educational technology, like the opening timeline. There are new displays, such as the exhibit's centerpiece: a King Tut riding a war chariot driven by two horses, all life-sized and life-like. There are also old, familiar displays, such as a model of an Egyptian temple. Even that, however, is given a digital facelift, with an interactive computer screen right next to it that swoops in for a deeper look inside the massive model.
For Lupton – a man in love with cinematic storytelling – every artifact, model, display or little detail serves to tell stories. One Roman helmet, once blasely displayed with a bunch of other metal objects "like it was an upside down bowl or something" during the of '60s and '70s, was probably from the era of Mark Antony's legions Parthia and Iran. One small coin is not only a demonstration of early coin denominational value – something done to save on precious metals – but it's also features one of the only known legitimate images attributed Cleopatra. Lupton even found a Greek amphora in storage in worse condition than the one they previously had because it had more of a story to tell.
"We know not only what ship this came from; we know the history of the Roman who owned the ship," Lupton said. "This was from a Carthaginian ship that was sunk off the coast of Spain. (The owner) was Roman, but he lived in Greece on the island of Delos. He had a merchant fleet, and he'd ship out wines from the eastern Mediterranean to the west, to France and Spain. So even though the piece didn't look as good as the last one, the story was much more interesting."
As a film buff himself, however, Lupton knows some of the most influential stories for "Crossroads of Civilization" are the ones visitors will be already entering with: the tales they've seen imprinted on the big screen and turned into legend. He'd the first to call out the historical inaccuracies of a blockbuster like "300" (don't even get him started on the sequel, which played as violently fast and loose with history as its characters did with enemies' limbs).
"Xerxes, the Persian king, didn't look anything like that of course," Lupton noted. "He didn't have bling all over his body and piercing his face. Spartans didn't go into battle with just a loincloth on; trust me, they wore armor. The Persian army looked like this; they did not look like guys with metal facemasks that looked like zombies out of God knows what. There's no context to that movie. The Persians just come and say, 'We're taking over,' and they kick the one guy down a pit, and then they go to war."
There's even a part of the exhibit where models display what Xerxes, Persian soldiers and Athenian hoplites would have truly looked like. Even so, Lupton is no history scold. He still enjoys and loves these Hollywood tales. In the end, he sees them to be a helpful part of engaging and introducing people young and old to the world of history, fictionalized stories that can provide the introduction to the true stories that inspired them.
After all, that's his story.
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