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Some of the most compelling research in Classical art and archaeology over the past few decades has reconstructed the painted surfaces of statues, relief sculpture and architecture to show that Ancient Greece was full of colour.

Our upcoming exhibition Ancient Greeks: Athletes, Warriors and Heroes, on loan from the British Museum, includes many ancient Greek objects which were once many-coloured but have long been stripped to their bare surfaces.

To give our audiences the opportunity to imaginatively recreate one example of ancient Greek art in colour, we developed the Paint Phila interactive touchscreen with the team at Gibson Group.

Paint Phila interactive 0:41

Paint Phila interactive in action. This video has no sound.

Phila: A woman from Smyrna

For the interactive we selected a marble gravestone that commemorates the life of Phila, an elite woman from Smyrna, in modern-day Turkey. The gravestone is rich in detail and meaning, making it perfectly suited to the paint by numbers colouring template.

The interactive will be located near the object on display in the exhibition, giving visitors the opportunity to examine it before and after reconstructing it for themselves in colour.

We selected 14 decorative elements as ‘hotspots’, each providing more information on the architectural, social and biographical details shown. Touching the elements activates a scrolling palette which allows visitors to change the colour of the marble. The longer you press an area, the more vivid the hue becomes, making it possible to use anything from a light wash of neutral colours to solid fluorescent blocks.

Marble gravestone of a seated person in robes with two figures of a smaller scale. - click to view larger image

Marble gravestone

Marble gravestone with colour overlaid digitally. - click to view larger image

The gravestone in colour

A new approach

A woman is interacting with a digital touch screen featuring an image of a marble statue and a colour palette. - click to view larger image

We wanted our visitors to be able to keep or share their finished artwork. However, this proved challenging without an accessible internet connection in the gallery. Gibson Group took on the challenge.

They worked out that colour information could be encoded in a URL within a QR code. This code could then be used to load a webpage with an exact replica of the visitor’s artwork to their own device.

From there, visitors can save or share it to their social media channels.

While the Gibson Group developed a similar painting interactive for our Rome: City and Empire exhibition, this was a new and innovative approach. Thanks to Covid, QR codes – which had almost become extinct – are now widely used, making them the perfect tool for this setting.

An imaginative spectrum

The interactive’s palette is imaginary rather than informed by any visible pigment residue on the object, or from scientific analyses. This is partly because we want our visitors to engage with the interactive as playfully as possible, but also because close surface analyses have not yet been conducted on this object.

The British Museum is a leader in such studies, and investigations may be possible in the future when the object returns from its Antipodean tour. Ancient Greeks is coming to Canberra as part of a special Australasian tour that includes the Western Australian Museum in Perth and Tāmaki Paenga Hira Auckland War Memorial Museum. Our Paint Phila interactive will be enjoyed by visitors at all three venues.

In our collection

'L'immortel Cook', a marble portrait bust of Captain James Cook after the artist PajouA white marble portrait bust of Captain James Cook. The bust features a clean-shaven male with curly hair looking to the viewer's left. The portrait stops at the bare shoulders and the upper chest and rests on a square marble base. The front of the base features an inscription in French that reads 'JACQUES COOK / NE DANS LE CONT...
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