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The inaugural event of the CCGS new series of online seminars is to be presented by Dr Anastasia Christophilopoulou of Cambridge University's Fitzwilliam Museum. "Being an Islander: Art and Identity of the Large Mediterranean Islands" is a four-year project investigating the factors that inform island identity and its expression through art and culture. In this article, we explain the origins of the project, outlines its objectives, and spotlights the some of the more significant findings. Anastasia's seminar promises to be entertaining and visually interesting.

The project "Being an Islander - Art and Identity of the large Mediterranean Islands," was conceived as an investigation into the distinct yet interdependent identities of the communities on the 300 inhabited islands in the Mediterranean by Dr Anastasia Christophilopoulou of Cambridge University's Fitzwilliam Museum. Whilst completing another project focussed on islands in the region, "Cyprus in Context," Dr Christophilopoulou experienced a sense of frustration that traditional museum projects did not extend beyond the limits of their own collections and so missed "… the opportunity to address wider sociocultural phenomena…" within the communities that created those collections.

Out of that 2018 sense of dissatisfaction emerged a project idea which was developed over the following 12 months into a project which would extend beyond the confines of the Fitzwilliam's extensive collections, into the modern world experienced by these communities. Anastasia collaborated with two colleagues during the development phase: Dr David Evans, Exhibitions Manager at the Museum, and Yorgos Petrou, the celebrated Greek-Cypriot, contemporary artist.

In an interview with CCGS, Dr Christophilopoulou outlined the inception of the work: "We initiated the project … because we wanted to investigate what defines island identity in the Mediterranean through material culture. We want to explore how insularity affects and shapes cultural identity using the three examples of Cyprus, Crete, and Sardinia. By doing this we want to provide a platform to debate cultural evolution in the islands as opposed to the surrounding mainland and in the same time respond to the frustration … that museums often miss the opportunity to address wider sociocultural phenomena when researching their collections because they tend to focus on examining these objects only as  artworks, detached of their original context."

Current events in 2018 gave the project an added twist. The UK was reeling from the fallout of the "Brexit" referendum as the Government of the day argued about the terms of an exit deal and the British public was firmly divided over the decision to leave the EU. Greece, meanwhile, was still coming to terms with its financial problems, the terms of the EU's third bailout, and its own relationship with the trading bloc. It was felt that there was a lot of resonance between the experiences of islanders and those of the Greek and UK populations concerning the issues of island versus mainland cultural identity. This presented an opportunity to widen the discourse and relate it to contemporary issues.

Islands, not insular

"Being and Islander…" confronts the perception that inhabitants of any given island are different, both from those on the mainland and those on other islands, and are defined by a distinctive, shared beliefs and characteristics, little influenced by other communities. This attitude has persistent throughout history, fuelled by the belief that the sea acts as barrier to cultural exchange and influence and that islands have different developmental trajectories from the mainland with more readily isolated socio-political, cultural and economic trends. This idea that islanders are different and remote has found its way into popular usage with terms like "insularity" being used to describe, generally pejoratively, individuals who appear cut-off from the mainstream, resistant to externally-motivated change.

This view of insularity has been reinforced by the geographic and environmental approaches which have usually been adopted by past studies. Emphasising the physical isolation leads to the perspective of cultural and technological isolation, the limitations imposed by the availability of raw materials - or lack thereof - and acceptance of and adaptation to insular conditions. This approach can be deterministic and somewhat prejudicial.


In contrast, the Museum's project views the sea as a link, facilitating and maintaining connections, both formal and informal, whilst at the same time discouraging more negative interactions with its inherent logistical difficulties. Thus, connectivity and interaction has been an important feature of island life; a view supported by archaeological and cultural evidence, and by the recorded histories of the Mediterranean islands. The larger islands are usually considered to be of greater importance by virtue of their size, biodiversity, and distinctive cultures arising from the societal interactions of their larger populations but they have always been major elements in a larger tableau of interconnected and interactive communities as much joined by the shared juxtaposition to the sea as separated by a watery boundary. And as much as the island communities have developed and negotiated their own constantly changing cultural identities, this has always been influenced and informed by external networks - social, cultural, economic, and political.

Implicit within this view of connectivity is the idea of mobility which the project seeks to position as a central, perhaps defining, characteristic of Mediterranean island societies - if they are linked by their geographical proximity to the sea, so they are a function of its use a mode of transport. And whilst the intensity of this phenomenon has varied throughout history, it gave the region a distinct characteristic as well as facilitating the intermingling of influences.

The project, then, postulates that being and islander is a fluid state of being and challenges a long-standing stereotype. It questions accepted assumptions concerning island identity, isolation, and interaction with other communities and analyses how island communities produced material culture, integrated material culture from other areas, and shaped their own social and cultural identities.

Time and Space

The originality of "Being and Islander …" lies in its diachronic scope and its multi-scalar approach to human interaction within continental as well as island environments. Its analytical approach draws on multiple fields of enquiry including subsections of archaeology such as ceramics studies, archaeobotany, and archaeometallurgy. This approach also addresses several important current debates in Mediterranean Archaeology such as the perceived disciplinary division between Aegean prehistory and classical archaeology or the descriptive, rather than interpretive, approaches to interaction.

The issues are explored through case studies of three of the five largest Mediterranean islands - Crete, Sardinia, and Cyprus. Contributors to the project will use its outputs - publications, conferences, and the exhibition - to explore and debate its predominant themes, especially mobility and connectivity, drawing on temporal and geographic case studies.

The exhibition, in particular, will be used to make the project accessible to a wide range of people beyond the academic sphere through the display of key artefacts and interactive installations. The exhibition is the brainchild of Dr David Evans who, drawing on his experience as an Exhibitions Manager is conceptualising the project’s ideas into an publicly-engaging, interactive display, which will be augmented by a series of installations that correspond to the exhibits, from Yorgos Petrou whose contribution Anastasia describes as a "… very important dialectic between the material cultures of the ancient Mediterranean and contemporary Art …"

"Being an Islander: Art and Identity of the Large Mediterranean Islands" will run until 2023 and will culminate in a major exhibition featuring in The Fitzwilliam Museum from 14th February 14, 2023 to 14th May 14, 2023.