by Neda Helena Jeny, Ph.D.
Summer is here, and no doubt most people will take a few days off for some vacation trip. I have already done so. Three weeks ago I did what I do every summer: I spent a few days in Washington, DC. I have never lived there, but I have visited it many times, and by now I know some parts of it very well—the National Gallery, for one, the Smithsonian museums, the Library of Congress, etc. But there are always new places to discover, and this time I decided to visit Mme. Tussauds Wax Museum.
Like most people, I heard of Mme. Tussauds long ago. I knew that the “original” museum is in London (still one of its most popular tourist attractions), that the oldest effigies in it (including a few fashioned by Mme. Tussaud) are really made entirely of wax, and that its most famous part is the Chamber of Horrors—a gallery of notorious criminals and tyrants. I hope to visit the London museum someday, but this time I had to be content with the newer museum in Washington. Not surprisingly, its effigies are of American people—and no Chamber of Horrors there.
And it was quite an experience. To me, the most interesting effigies were not those of popular (and mostly still living) American entertainers and sportsmen, but those of all American presidents, from Washington to Obama. (Incidentally, every effigy is labeled—except one. As if inviting people to come in, on the pavement by the entrance to Mme. Tussaud’s there is an effigy of a very beautiful platinum blonde woman in a slinky long dress—not labeled, for it does not need to be. Everybody, American or non-American, will recognize Marilyn Monroe at once, even if he or she has never seen any of her movies. And how many effigies of American presidents would be instantly recognized by everyone, I wonder? Probably precious few.)
I knew, even before I came to the museum, that nowadays wax statues are not made in the “traditional” way. Besides, the museum offers a brief movie which explains, step by step, how the images are made—a sophisticated, complex process, different from Mme. Tussaud’s method of wax modeling. But, if the process has changed, and, in addition to wax, other materials are used as well, the purpose is still the same: to make as lifelike an image as possible, including real hair, real clothes (sometimes clothes donated by the person who posed for the effigy), real props around the effigies, etc. And I can bear witness that the success is complete. When I was in the museum, several times I, for a moment, mistook an effigy for a living person, or another visitor for an effigy. I am sure that happens all the time.
And then, after visiting Washington, I visited another city, this time one in which I lived for some time: Norfolk, VA. Not one of the most famous US cities but still, it does have its attractions, including the Chrysler Museum of Art, one of my favorite places. A relatively small museum, but with plenty of various and interesting exhibits, including an outstanding collection of glass objects, and even its own glass studio.
When I taught Latin in Virginia Beach, every year I would take my pupils to a classical tour of Chrysler Museum. I would give them the map of the museum, directing them to the classical objects in various rooms—that is, either Greek and Roman objects, or objects by later artists, inspired by Greek and Roman art. Most of them were, naturally, pictures and sculptures, though there were also mosaics, vases, tapestries, ornaments, and so on.
I especially remember a room that visitors can now no longer see, for the museum was renovated and expanded last year. It was a room full of neoclassical statues by European and American sculptors of the 19th century. (The statues are still on display, but now scattered throughout the galleries.) Perhaps to an American the most interesting statues would be those connected with American history. There was a statue of Pocahontas, a group of statues inspired by Cooper’s novel The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish, about a white girl abducted by Native Americans, and even the personification of America, which, not surprisingly, looked just like some Greek goddess. There were also statues inspired by some aspect of Western history, religion, or culture: the bound Isaac kneeling by the altar, a little gypsy girl with a tambourine, the personification of Venice, a perky, likable Puck seated on a big tortoise (fashioned by a woman sculptor, by the way). And then there were classical statues in the full sense of the word: Ganymede and the eagle, a bust of Persephone rimmed by ivy leaves, and Rinehart’s masterpiece, Clytie clutching a sunflower in her hopeless pining for Apollo, to mention a few.
All those statues had one thing in common: they were made of pure white marble, just like the classical statues of Greece and Rome, exhibited in so many museums of the Western world.
And that set me thinking… just like the classical statues? Did Greek and Roman statues look like that? For many years, I would have answered, yes, of course. Now I know better—but more about that in my next blog.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Neda Helena Jeny is a native of Croatia, who received her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and her M.A. in Classics from Johns Hopkins University. She has taught literature and Latin at the college, high school, and middle school level, and has translated books from English into Croatian and vice versa. She is currently teaching Latin at Savannah Classical Academy.