Mary Beard has an extraordinary knack for making art history palatable. She has been called “Britain’s most beloved intellectual,” and this summer Queen Elizabeth II honored her many achievements by naming her a dame.
She is a classics professor at the University of Cambridge, but her scholarly journey seems to have started with a piece of cake. As a 5-year-old in 1960, she visited the British Museum, where she desperately wanted a better look at a 3,000-year-old carbonized piece of cake from ancient Egypt. That’s when a curator did something she’ll never forget: He reached for his keys, opened up the case and put that piece of cake right in front of the wide-eyed little girl.
Speaking by phone from her home in Cambridge, England, Beard acknowledges, “The idea that some old guy, or so he seemed to me, sees a kid trying to look, and what he does is open the door for you—that’s a moving moment.”
Opening up doors to history is exactly what Beard has been doing in her long career as a professor, television host and author, including in her bestselling revisionist history of ancient Rome, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome. This spring, she was featured in a new BBC series, “Civilizations,” which is now available on PBS.
In highly readable prose accompanied by a wealth of pictures, her companion book to the series, How Do We Look: The Body, the Divine, and the Question of Civilization explores both the depiction and reception of ancient art. She examines images of the human body, and also of God or gods. In doing so, she travels the globe and gallops through history, witnessing a sunrise in Cambodia at Angkor Wat, visiting art-filled caves in India, traipsing through the Mexican jungle to see Olmec heads, wandering through the ranks of China’s terra-cotta warriors and admiring a modern Turkish mosque in Istanbul.
“You start to see how these things are incorporated into our own lives and the lives of people of the past.”
She’s a plain-spoken, down-to-earth guide, from the top of her long, flowing gray hair down to her fashionable sneakers, which allow her to get up close and personal with a cavalcade of art masterpieces. Her enthusiasm is contagious as she clambers alongside a 65-foot-high Roman statue, the Colossi of Memnon, saying, “I’ve waited half my life to be here!”
“Blimey!” Beard recalls. “That’s when you realize it’s vast. I’m sitting on his foot, and that’s big, and there’s a whole statue there.” Later in our conversation she circles back to how affected she was by these encounters: “If I look impressed and a bit moved, it’s because I was. It’s kind of exciting and slightly terrifying in a way, to be so up close to those things. I’ll never forget it.”
Unlike many art historians, Beard doesn’t simply focus on the lives and methods of artists, whom she describes as “one damn genius after the next.” Those stories interest her, but she points out that there’s much more to contemplate.
“I think that just as—or more—interesting is what people made of [the art], how they saw it and what they did with it,” she says. “Simply to concentrate on that one moment in which this work of art was created—usually by a male creative genius—is not to see enormous amounts about the history of the object: [not only] what it was for at the time—how people understood it then, how radical it was then—but also what happened to it over 2,000 years and how people have used it differently and thought about it.”
She notes, “We’re in the picture, too. That all has to be part of the discussion. It’s widening the sense of what the history of art is. As I say, ‘putting us back in the picture.’”
Take nudes, for instance. Today’s art viewers take them for granted, or as Beard phrases it, “not just one damn genius after another, but one damn Venus after another.” But the idea of displaying the naked female body was once really “in your face,” as first evidenced by the Aphrodite of Knidos, carved by Greek sculptor Praxiteles around 330 BCE. Nudes have now become “part of the stereotype of the greatest hits of world art,” Beard says, then offers a counter perspective: “It’s quite important to think about why something that we now think of as very much part of the standard tradition was, once upon a time, so difficult, awkward and upsetting, actually.”
While affirming that she’s a great admirer of museums, Beard cautions that they “encourage you to look at objects in kind of standardized ways.” In contrast, she loved seeing artworks that were “either somehow in their original setting in churches or were kind of out there, just in the world.” One high point was a visit to an unfinished sculpture still in its quarry in Naxos, Greece, which offered a very comfortable place to sit.
“This sculpture has been in the world of this village for two and a half thousand years now,” she notes. “You start to see how these things are incorporated into our own lives and the lives of people of the past.”
Beard hopes that both the book and television series will give museum-goers more ownership of what they see. “I hope they’ll feel closer to [the art] and have a sense of a right to speak about it.”
She also offers this important advice for museum visits: “Don’t spend too long. Spend an hour there, look at three things, and then go away. Actually go and really get to know something. There’s nothing worse than watching people being somehow herded through museums.”
“Maybe it’s because I’m getting old,” Beard says, “but I find I get terrible museum legs after about an hour and a half.”
Author photo by Robin Cormack.