Seminar Programme

The Institute of Historical Research at the School of Advanced Studies of the University of London hosts our seminar on Collecting & Display. The monthly seminars take place at the Institute, Senate House, Malet St, London WC1E 7HU. Seminars begin at 6.00 and last approximately one hour. 

Please see the Conferences page for recent updates.


Our seminars in Spring 2021 will take place on Zoom.

Monday, 15th February at 6 p.m.

David Bellingham will speak on: Collecting and Display in Ancient Rome

This paper will begin with a critical review of the primary source types available for the study of the collecting and display of art in the ancient Roman world.  The main sources include: literary histories, biographies, legal speeches, rhetorical exercises, poems and private letters; as well as archaeological sources such as the towns and villas destroyed by the Vesuvian eruption of 79 CE, and other excavated sites in and around Rome itself and throughout the Roman Empire.

The paper will then look in more detail at three case studies: the Roman Republican statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BCE), the excavations of the ‘Villa of the Papyri’ at Herculaneum and the palatial villa at Tivoli of the Roman Emperor Hadrian (76-138 CE).  The evidence for Cicero’s collecting and display rationales only survives in literary sources, including his political tracts and speeches, lawcourt speeches, philosophical essays and, perhaps most interestingly, his published ‘private’ correspondence with family and friends.  The case study will focus on Cicero’s letters to Titus Pomponius Atticus (c. 110-32 BCE), his friend, art advisor and agent working out of Athens and providing Cicero with sculptures for display in his several Italian villas.  The letters challenge the commonly held modern opinion that Romans collected art with little regard for rational selection and display.  The ‘Villa of the Papyri’ at Herculaneum was partially excavated in the eighteenth century and the findspots of its famous sculptural collection were faithfully recorded before they were transported to Naples.  The knowledge of the original locations of the sculptures, together with the Ciceronian correspondence with Atticus enable an assessment of Roman attitudes towards collection and display.  These assessments can be applied to many other display contexts, including the replication of ‘old master’ (earlier Classical Greek) paintings in Romano-Campanian interior decoration, the marble replication of Polykleitos’s bronze Doryphoros (‘Spear-bearer’) in the ‘Samnite Gymnasium’ at Pompeii and the sculptural replications of Classical sculptures in Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli.  Finally, the paper will argue that these ancient Roman collecting strategies as transmitted in the textual tradition might have influenced those of the Renaissance.


Dr. David Bellingham is an art historian, author and Programme Director for the Master’s Degree in Art Business at Sotheby’s Institute of Art, London where he leads a core unit on The International Art World, Law and Ethics, as well as electives on The Market for Antiquities & Old Masters and Ethics, Law & the Art Trade.  He also lectures on Classical Art and Architecture, and their reception in the modern era.  He holds a special honours degree in Latin and Classical Archaeology (University of Birmingham), and a doctorate from the University of Manchester for his thesis on the cultural and socio-economic aspects of sympotic scenes in ancient Roman and Pompeian wall-painting.  David has published numerous books and articles on a variety of subjects, including: art fairs; art business ethics; Greek & Celtic mythology; the art market for classical sculpture and frescoes; the paintings of Sandro Botticelli; authenticity issues in the paintings of Frans Hals; and the ethical reception of the Riace Bronzes.

Monday, 15th March, 2021 at 6 p.m.

Eleni Vassilika will speak on:  The Display of Ancient Art in Museums

Encyclopedic museums face different and arguably more complex issues than do those devoted to pictures or, what we in the museum business refer to as, ‘flat art’.  We may recall the old overstuffed wooden showcases with archaeological or natural history specimens in serial repetition from our museum school trips. Museums with antiquities and mostly fragmentary objects have a harder time in engaging visitors in their exhibitions of ancient or ethnographic cultures remote in time or place. On a practical level alone, the installation of fragmentary three-dimensional objects, is more complex than hanging pictures in a conventional gallery. The objects are usually placed under glass, and in the old days they might have been pinned to a fabric-covered sloping surface or slant. Now individually mounted on ‘invisible’ Plexiglas plinths, the objects are aesthetically positioned and transformed from specimens to ancient works of art. The shorter and wheelchair-bound visitors should be able to view them easily and the taller and perhaps older exhibition goers should not have to bend or struggle to read a label that is placed too low. Lighting a table case can also be tricky since visitors have to bend over to examine objects, thereby casting an obscuring shadow. Ancient art galleries often involve great weights, like four-ton granite Egyptian sarcophagi that may have to be sited on the ground or lower ground floor distant from the portable antiquities. Many are the considerations in bringing ancient art to life.

Dr Eleni Vassilika was Keeper of Antiquities at the Fitzwilliam Museum of the University of Cambridge (1990-2000), before taking up the Directorship of the Roemer-und Pelizaeus-Museum in Hildesheim Germany (2000-2005), from where she moved on to become Director of the Museo Egizio in Turin Italy (2005-2014). Although considered a specialist in ancient art, she regards herself as a generalist, able to address a wide spectrum of the arts. Her directorial management skills were honed through the challenging and possibly unparalleled experience of presiding over the successful privatisation of both continental museums. Eleni returned to the UK in 2014 as Curatorial Director of the National Trust, responsible for historic properties. Since 2016 she has devoted her time to research, writing lecturing and organising exhibitions.