I love history. And for me, the older the history, the more I love it. There’s something that fascinates me about seeing how the first people of a given culture tried to figure out the concept of civilization. And for the first couple of millenniums of human history the difference between civilized and true barbarism was incredibly fine. But sadly, DC doesn’t have a large selection of museums that cater to ancient history nerds like me. The Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum has an exhibit which hasn’t been updated since I was in elementary school; and Dumbarton Oaks Museum has a nice collection on the Byzantine Empire, but that is more medieval history than ancient. There isn’t much else without going to another city.
Imagine my excitement to find out that the National Geographic Museum was holding exhibit on the ancient Etruscan Civilization! For the non-history buffs out there, the Etruscan Civilization was an Italian peoples which inhabited roughly the area of modern day Tuscany (which is where we get the name). That area is, roughly speaking, bound by the Tiber River (and Rome) to the south, the Tyrrhenian Sea to the west, and the Apennine Mountains to the north and east. The Etruscans were an important culture in Italy from about 750 BC to around 500 BC, and were an significant influence on Roman culture and history.
The Etruscans’ influence on Rome is of historical debate. It’s clear that a number of features and concepts of Etruscan civilization were at least borrowed by the Romans, but exactly how much is unclear. I couldn’t find this in my research, but one gets the sense that historians can’t quite figure out whether the Romans were an offshoot of the Etruscans, or if the Romans did what Romans did with everyone they met: borrowed what parts of their culture they liked and put a Roman spin to it. You certainly get that sense walking through the National Geographic exhibit.
If you’re familiar with ancient Greek or Roman history, you’ll feel at home with this exhibit. The Etruscans were heavily influence by the Greeks, as all ancient Mediterranean people were, but they also still have a distinct Italian vibe which the Romans helped carry on. The exhibit does a good job of breaking the Etruscans civ into three sections: their views on the afterlife and religion; the importance of farming; and general daily life, such as a look at their food and military cultures. The exhibit is excellent.
The only bad thing about the exhibit is that it’s too small. I was hoping for a huge exhibit, filled with detailed displays which chronicled specific cities and exploits. Granted the Etruscans thrived for only a relatively brief time (~200 years), but their impact is still felt through how they influenced the Romans. But that wasn’t to be; the National Geographic Museum has only so much space. And they are still running their other great exhibit, Race to the End of the Earth. But, if you love ancient history like me, this is well worth a visit.
If you’d like to see more images from the exhibit, please see my set on Flickr. National Geographic was nice enough to give us a sneak peak, so enjoy the photos.
The Etruscans: An Italian Civilization does require tickets for entry. Admission is $8 for adults; $6 for National Geographic members, military, students, seniors, and groups of 25 or more; and $4 for children 5-12 (free for 4 and under). The exhibit runs from June 10th to September 25th, 2011.
The National Geographic Museum is located at 1145 17th Street NW; tickets can be purchased online or by phone (202-857-7588).