When Professor of Classics James Higginbotham visited his grandparents' farm as a child, he would explore nearby Native American artifacts and 18th century settlements and set up make-believe museums on the front porch. Today, Higginbotham retains his fascination of artifacts, but his venue for displaying them has been upgraded to something much sleeker: the newly renovated Walker Art Building.
In addition to instructing courses for the classics department, Higginbotham has served as the Associate Curator for the Ancient Collection for the Museum of Art since the spring of 2006. He curated three of the exhibitions now on display.
One of these exhibitions, "Ancient Art: Immortal Dreams," features the portrait heads of Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius and his wife, Faustina the Elder.
According to Higginbotham, the portrait head of Antoninus, which was a gift to the Museum, is one of the finest existing representations of the Emperor in America. The piece depicting Faustina is on loan from Mount Holyoke College.
In a lecture Higginbotham delivered on October 13, he explained that this royal couple has traditionally been viewed as the paradigm for benevolent rulers. In fact, after they died, Romans deified and worshipped them.
Jaclyn Zaborski '10, who attended the lecture, was struck by Higginbotham's passion and expertise for the collection.
"When I heard him talk about [the emperor's portrait head], he was so enthusiastic and knowledgeable about it," Zaborski said.
"His love and genuine interest in the art was apparent and very contagious."
Higginbotham is particularly fond of ancient portraiture.
"Portraits are an amazing group within ancient art. They have something that draws you in," Higginbotham said.
The other two exhibitions that Higginbotham curated in the museum are long-term installations that will remain on display throughout the year.
"Ars Antiqua: Ancient Pastimes and Passions" is a collection of pottery, sculpture, coins, and other objects that explore several themes relating to the nature of ancient life. "Palace Reliefs" features five Assyrian stone reliefs which were carved in the ninth century B.C.E. by the order of king Ashurnasirpal II. The reliefs, which were originally housed in the ancient king's palace, now hang in the rear of the Museum's ground floor and are visible from outside the building through large windows.
Relocating the ancient stone reliefs to their current spot was a complex and laborious process. The museum staff collaborated with a special crew to move the hefty artifacts. The team mounted the reliefs in sleds and slid them in a zigzag route along the foundations of the building. This process was devised in order to minimize stress to the building from the enormous weight of the panels, which each weigh up to 1400 lbs.
"The museum had become an artifact in itself and that made it difficult to renovate," Higginbotham said, adding that his favorite new aspect of the museum are the giant windows that show off the Assyrian reliefs to passers-by.
Higginbotham also expressed an overall satisfaction with the renovations.
"We are thrilled with the way it turned out. The entire college?the President, the deans, the Museum staff, the students?really came together around this renovation. Everybody became involved. That collaboration paid off," he said. "Bowdoin's museum has graduated into the 21st century and is now among the [top] institutions in the country."
One of the countless improvements made to the museum is the addition of a climate control system, which will enable the museum to preserve the art in the best way possible. Enhancements such as these, makes Bowdoin more credible in the eyes of institutions from which it may want to borrow artifacts.
"Loaning and being loaned artifacts is one of the most important ways that museums stay current and now Bowdoin can participate in that," said Higginbotham.
Altogether, the three exhibitions that Higginbotham curated showcase approximately 20 percent of Bowdoin's ancient art collection.
"The ancient collection here is much better than those at other institutions of similar size," Higginbotham said. "It's really unique that you can find this level of collection here both in terms of its quality and comprehensiveness."
As the only faculty member on the museum staff, Higginbotham finds managing his teaching and curatorial obligations both challenging and rewarding.
"Being able to work with the past and coupling that with the active, vibrant environment of museum is perfect for me," he said.
The Museum of Art is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., Thursday evening to 8:30 p.m. and Sunday 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. Admission to the museum is free.
Mary Helen Miller contributed to this report.