Credit: Blane Aitchison

Labyrinth: Knossos, Myth and Reality Reviewed

Labyrinth: Knossos, Myth and Reality is the Ashmolean’s new major exhibition, open from the 10th of February until the 30th of July 2023. The exhibition focuses on Knossos, an archaeological site on the Greek island of Crete, and explores a range of topics related to the site, including the myth of the Minotaur, the role of Sir Arthur Evans in excavating the site, and a broad overview of Minoan culture. The unique selling point of the exhibition is that it’s the first Knossos-focussed exhibition in the UK, and contains ‘over 100 objects that have never left Crete and Greece before’ according to the Ashmolean Museum’s website.

The exhibition starts off well with a section dedicated to the minotaur, and an impressive centrepiece of a statue of the Minotaur on loan from the National Archaeological Museum of Athens. This section also contains prints by Pablo Picasso, Michael Ayrton, and Mark Wallinger, as well as a short video by Zahra Hall that tells the story of Theseus and the Minotaur. Interestingly, this video seems to be the only reference to Theseus in the whole exhibition. Presumably, the Ashmolean wanted the Minotaur and the setting of the labyrinth itself to take precedence, but this does feel like a strange omission.

The exhibition then turns away from the mythology of the labyrinth and into a small section on other labyrinths. This is a jumble of historic literary sources that reference the labyrinth at Knossos, or simply any labyrinth at all, and it’s confusing to go from such a strong and focused opening to the exhibition to a section that almost doesn’t make sense at all. The best part of this section is by far the trio of carved stone fragments that come from a site near Crocodilopolis that supposedly inspired the creation of the labyrinth at Knossos.

The largest part of the exhibition is the section dedicated to the excavation of Knossos, with items from Sir Arthur Evans’ archive and some of the major archaeological finds on display. This includes extracts from Evans’ own diary, where he concludes that the fabled labyrinth and the palace of Minos are one and the same. Unfortunately, this is where the exhibition starts to fall apart. The exhibition had started so boldly with the Minotaur theme that by the time you’d walked past the statues and the artwork of arguably the most well-known character in Greek mythology, anything less than spectacular would’ve been a disappointment. In this case, the hordes of letters, documents and maps definitely constituted a disappointment.

They’re still interesting by themselves, but there is a sense that the curators didn’t really think much about the layout of the exhibit. Wouldn’t it have been more exciting to put the minotaur-related items at the end of the gallery, building up tension while you browse through other items until you finally turn the corner and you’re confronted by the statue of the half-man half-bull?

This approach would have created a sense of dramatic irony that is completely lost in the exhibition as it is. We all know there’s going to be a section dedicated to the minotaur, so why not create suspense by having us wait to see it? This would leave one of the more visually exciting collections of items, and probably one of the most accessible collections of items to those who aren’t familiar with the meta discussions about archaeology and archaeological practice until the finale, ending the exhibit on a much bigger high.

It’s not all bad – there’s a great selection of items across the gallery, and it’s good to see that more obscure topics like Knossos and the work of Arthur Evans are getting their chance to shine. I just wish that the curators hadn’t gone all in with the minotaur section if they wanted the archaeological reality of Knossos to be front and centre to the exhibit.