Essays

How Coloring Books Can Teach Us About Diversity in Ancient Times

If we consider coloring books as pedagogical tools rather than amusing diversions, we can use the fad as food for thought.

A mosaic of a Dionysian scene originally from the Italian port of Ostia (2nd c. CE), now at the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)

In a previous piece on ancient polychromy for Hyperallergic, I discussed how certain alt-right groups had begun to appropriate marble sculpture of the classical world as symbolic of white European superiority, when in fact most white statues in antiquity were painted. The piece caused some controversy, to say the least. Although it was misconstrued by some as an accusation that all white statues were inherently racist, the article was in fact meant to recognize that art historical interpretations of artwork have the power to influence the way individual people, groups, and entire fields of study define beauty. In the piece, I suggested that museums could return color to the ancient world by using new projection-mapping techniques to colorize ancient objects (as practiced on the Ara Pacis in Rome or frequently used on the Egyptian reliefs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York) and to embrace the use of 3D modeling in museum displays. What I had not considered was a more analog approach to learning about ancient polychromy: the coloring book.

A reconstructed Romanesque polychrome simulation of a fragment from the 13th-century stone portico at Santa Maria de Vilagrassa (Sketchfab 3D model by Josep Giribet)

In recent years, adult coloring books have become all the rage — to the point where the thought of one more might make us a little nauseous. But if we consider coloring books as pedagogical tools rather than an amusing activity to partake in while waiting for brunch, we can perhaps use the fad as food for thought. It is not as though museums and libraries haven’t already thought of this. The Twitter hashtag #ColorOurCollections has encouraged everyone from the Vatican to the University of Iowa libraries to produce open-access coloring pages that allow people to better interact with museum collections, archives, and cultural heritage. But there is something special about highlighting student artists — rather than curators, professors, or professionals — who have taken this idea into their own hands.

Students at the RISD Museum Summer Teen Intensive Workshop display their final project, a coloring book on ancient polychromy

At the Rhode Island School of Design Museum’s 2017 Museum Summer Teen Intensive, curator of ancient art Gina Borromeo met with teens for an 11-day intensive workshop. As recounted in a blog post on the subject, these students increasingly addressed the role of the museum in presenting and interpreting representations of identity, ethnicity, and status to viewers. The discussion shifted to polychromy, and a debate ensued about how the display of reconstructed color can inform museum viewers. For their final project at the workshop, the students produced a coloring book titled Pigments of Your Imagination: A Color Restoration Book, created in conjunction with artist Sonja John. (You can download it as a PDF or view it online.)

The book has a social justice angle that you don’t often find in coloring books centered on the ancient world, although there are others that discuss polychromy. Just a few months ago, classicist Lisa Trentin published a coloring book for adults to learn about polychrome sculpture called Classical Sculpture in Color: An Adult Colouring Book.

Cover of Dr. Lisa Trentin’s Coloring Book on Ancient Polychromy (Twitter image used with the permission of the author)

The book addresses a number of the techniques, reconstructions, and ideas forged by archaeologist Vinzenz Brinkmann and other classicists who are active in reconstructing ancient color. There was also a coloring book on polychromy published by Copenhagen’s Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek museum as part of their Transformations: Classical Sculpture in Colour exhibit, although it is in Danish and could only be bought along with the official catalogue. While both Trentin’s and the Glyptotek’s books are important, having free versions undoubtedly would have allowed for greater public engagement with the ideas they sought to impart.

The first page of Pigments of Your Imagination: A Color Restoration Book provides context for the debate over the paint applied to statues in antiquity

The question of whether we need more educational and interactive material that directly addresses color in the ancient world must be met with an explicit yes. In the past few weeks, this issue has again caused intense — and somewhat malicious — debate in the UK, where a cartoon depicting a dark-skinned Roman father elicited an uproar over whether there truly was diversity in ancient Roman Britannia. Even the well-known (and highly respected) classicist Mary Beard became the target of uninformed criticism and trolling. It is clear that this issue needs clarifying and that it is not going away anytime soon. Even when presented with sculpture, mosaics, frescoes, DNA analysis, and texts that speak to a diverse Mediterranean, many wish to deny it. That’s where modern cartoons, movies, video games, museums, and even coloring books can step in and begin to shift the visual narrative.

The negative backlash I received over the past two months has made me reflect on the fact that when artists or writers release something into the public sphere, they lose control over how it is received, interpreted, manipulated, and remixed. I had largely lamented this fact, but the teens at RISD helped me remember that putting our creations into the world can also have a positive impact. It was also a potent reminder that the next generation is already well informed about these sorts of complex issues and has a hell of a lot to teach us. I, for one, am more than happy to sit down with a box of crayons and learn from them.

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