1. Statuette of a Minoan goddess (Our Lady of the Sports), ivory and gold, probably from Crete and early 20th century. H. 19.1cm. W. 12.5cm. D. 3.9cm.

Minoan restoration – past and present

Archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans (1851–1941) and his team reconstructed our image of the Minoans with an eye for early 20th-century taste, even dubbing one of his Knossos finds 'Lady in Red'. In 1929 Evelyn Waugh quipped that the restorers

had 'tempered their zeal for reconstruction with a predilection for the covers of Vogue'. Over the last century, Evans' assumptions, methods and reputation have fared little better than the concrete that he poured liberally over the hill of Knossos. So, Restoring the Minoans, currently on show at New York University's Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (ISAW), is timely.

Curated by Jennifer Chu and Rachel Herschman of ISAW and Kenneth Lapatin of the Getty Museum, Restoring the Minoans takes a 21st-century view of Evans and the Minoan civilisation – and not just because it casts a critical eye over his restoration work.

More than 60 objects, some of them exhibited publicly for the first time, are on loan from Oxford's Ashmolean Museum, where Sir Arthur was Keeper from 1884 until 1908, and Pitt Rivers Museum. The exhibits include artefacts excavated by Evans, then restored by Emile Gilliéron and his son, also named Emile.

2. Restored View of the Queen's Megaron (after the megaron at Knossos), circa 1931, by Émile Gilliéron fils, watercolour. H. 33.5cm. W. 47.5cm.

The Gilliérons were highly imaginative, both in their restorations and their apparent involvement in the manufacture of outright fakes for the museum market. Their work for Evans was a palimpsest, layering a modern work over an older work, parts of which were still visible.

In Restoring the Minoans, Evans and his Minoan narrative become the object of another palimpsest. A Restoration, an immersive 18-minute video by artist Elizabeth Price, brings the Bronze Age and its Edwardian image into the 21st century.

Museums are dematerialising their collections by opening online archives to the public, expanding their audience and amplifying the modern significance of their holdings. Now, ironically, the digital experiment of A Restoration accompanies the first public exhibition of some of its Minoan inspirations.

It is narrated by a digital chorus of unseen 'museum administrators' who describe how they organise and re-imagine ancient objects, including Evans' material from Knossos.They note that his restorations are 'unusual' in that they are 'so indiscreet'. But, they are determined to recycle his energetic fictions, as they say, 'for our own ends', in order to 'cultivate a further germination'. 'We are cultivating a garden'.

Accompanied by driving percussion, images tumble across the screen, to morph into new forms with a stroke of gouache, or become layered on top of each other.

3. Acrobats leaping over a bull (after a fresco at Knossos), before 1914, Émile Gilliéron père, or fils, watercolour on paper. H. 87.6cm. W. 158.8cm.

Apparently, we are witnessing how the modern curatorial mind categorises and reconstructs objects, and assembles a historical narrative that speaks to the present. 

From the fragments of Knossos, Evans assembled an Edwardian paradise inhabited by a peace-loving, artistic and aristocratic society that ruled the waves. Price creates a digital paradise: a verdant image of the Minoans, complete with a reconstruction of the Knossos labyrinth. Her video is a modern equivalent of the Gilliérons' interpretations in watercolours, only much more scrupulous.

'Once discovered,' explains curator Jennifer Chu, 'archaeological artefacts have an active life as they are unearthed, recorded, reconstructed and, today, as illuminated in Elizabeth Price's brilliant and compelling A Restoration, digitised.

'It is, in fact, a journey that takes the material evidence of ancient cultures from excavation to dematerialisation. It is an important transformation, and one that reflects contemp-orary culture, much as the various ways of presenting these objects in the past reflected cultures before ours.'

Restoring the Minoans casts a digital net over Evans' fantasy. If Sir Arthur and his restorers were around now he would, doubtless, be advising the Gilliérons on the colour layers of their digital reconstructions.

• Restoring the Minoans is on show at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, New York (www.isaw.nyu.edu/exhibitions/minoans) until 7 January 2018.
Dominic Green