Herculean Labours: enriching the public understanding of our classical mythological heritage

labours of herakles

Classics Impact Case Study REF2014

Academic: Dr Emma Stafford, School of Languages, Cultures and Societies (Classics)

The University of Leeds has opened up new perspectives on our classical mythological heritage via work on the Graeco-Roman hero Herakles-Hercules, and has brought this material to new audiences.  A series of articles and the monograph Herakles (2012) reassessed the hero’s profile in antiquity and traced links through the Renaissance right up to the present day, bringing together a wider range of material than had previously been assembled. This laid the foundations for ongoing work on the post-classical material, involving the collaboration of a worldwide network of scholars working in a variety of disciplines.

Working with Leeds City Museum

This research has underpinned collaborative work between the University and Leeds City Museum.  Since 2010 the Museum has hosted events with a classical-mythological theme for the city’s annual Light Night in October.  Underworlds Live at Leeds (2010) and In the Footsteps of Hercules (2011) were both walking tours, incorporating the Museum’s Ancient Worlds Galleries and various city sights into journeys through mythology, drawing the participants’ attention to the wide variety of classical references which surround us.  These events attracted record numbers of visitors to the Museum, and have since become a regular feature, drawing on the work of different Leeds academics as the themes have diversified.

The first two Light Night events led to the establishment of the Museum’s monthly series of talks Classics in Our Lunchtimes.  These take a topical subject, like the Olympic Games (in 2012), or focus on an item in Leeds Museums and Galleries’ collections, and trace links with classical antiquity, once again contributing to the public understanding of our classical heritage.

Influencing exhibition design and event-programming

Research into present-day incarnations of Herakles initiated a collaboration with the contemporary New Zealand artist Marian Maguire, whose series of etchings and lithographs The Labours of Herakles features a Herakles inspired by ancient Greek vases inserted into nineteenth-century scenes of New Zealand, making witty comment on European colonisation. This led to the development of an exhibition which would start at Leeds City Museum in early 2015 and then tour a number of UK and continental European venues.  In each case the Maguire prints would be shown alongside a selection of objects from the local collections, demonstrating cross-cultural continuities across the ages.

[The exhibition] is an exciting opportunity... to juxtapose contemporary artworks with objects from the Leeds collection... ‘to tease out different stories... and bring to the public items that have rarely been exhibited or are less accessible.

Curator of Archaeology, Leeds City Museum

The project that has [been] developed with the Maguire exhibition in Leeds is a totally new way of thinking about displaying classical collections...  It offers a way to help us to interpret our collections and attract people to the museum beyond the normal range of public engagement.

Director of the Garstang Museum of Classical Archaeology, Liverpool 

After Leeds, the exhibition has continued to Cambridge Museum of Classical Archaeology, then travels to Munich’s Antikensammlung  and Würzburg’s Martin von Wagner Museum in Germany, and the Musée Royal de Mariemont in Belgium.

For more on the exhibition, and the ongoing research, see the Leeds Hercules Project website.