When the International Spy Museum reopens in a brand new building near the D.C. waterfront next year, it will greet guests with one very visible new addition: a full-scale, period-accurate Trojan Horse that will guard the museum’s entryway.
The Trojan Horse is a collaboration between the Spy Museum and Handshouse Studio, an artist space in the Norwell woods that specializes in these kinds of full-scale recreations, along with a group of MassArt students. It was Handshouse’s Bushnell Turtle, an egg-shaped, one-man, wooden submarine that was used to gather intelligence during the Revolutionary War, that first caught the eye of history lovers at the spy museum.
But they came to Handshouse founders Rick and Laura Brown with an even more ambitious proposal.
“We said, ‘Well, have you ever considered building a Trojan Horse?’” laughs Spy Museum director of development Rebecca Diamond. The story of the Trojan Horse is ubiquitous—it’s been referenced everywhere from Looney Tunes to church services—and she says the tale never fails to make visitors’ eyes light up in the museum today. “That’s very much a perfect artifact for the spy museum, it’s a great story of intelligence gathering. It truly is one of the earliest, best-known stories of intelligence and deception.”
The Browns were instantly hooked. Since they started building their nine-acre nonprofit studio in 1995, they’ve made a number of ambitious projects using period-accurate tools and techniques. It’s a process they call “experimental archaeology,” wherein they and their students study an object and ask questions about what they see. “We don’t have a philosophical agenda or a polemic,” Rick Brown explains. “It’s basically: Let’s replicate this.”
Brown says it’s a one-of-a-kind way of learning; students create their own lines of inquiry, and in doing so, find out about the social, political and economic forces that shaped the creation of a given object. They come away with a complete lesson, and they learn by making things—a Bushnell Turtle, a Perronet Crane—in a style that’s as accurate as possible. Even the tools are period-appropriate pieces built by students.
“You’d come down the road to the site, and it looked like a medieval village,” Brown chuckles, thinking back to the six-day, 75-person project that led to the completion of the crane. “We had people blacksmithing, people casting iron, people cutting huge timber with axes … you’d just think you were in another time period.”
The Trojan Horse team is much smaller. Just 22 MassArt students worked on the project throughout the Spring 2016 semester, and 11 contributed in the fall. The class was open to students from all backgrounds of study regardless of their graduating class, which Brown believes is important to fostering a dynamic, non-hierarchical learning environment.
One of those students was Cambridge resident and sculpture student Eve Lee Schauer, who’s been interested in art and sculpture ever since her dad gave her a package of clay when she was in high school. “It’s pretty amazing, to have the opportunity to be involved in a project like this,” Schauer says. “It’s different than anything I’ve ever done.” In her own work, she often sculpts animal figures—that’s part of what drew her to the project in the first place—but this Trojan Horse is on a far greater scale than anything she’s made before.
Schauer says that the students to operate as “history detectives” of sorts. They’ve been looking at just about any art depicting horses that survived that period, mostly paintings on ceramic vessels and small votive offerings that were used to honor the gods.
The Trojan Horse project presented a few specific challenges—namely, that no one is sure if it was real or strictly mythological. “The interesting thing about this project is that there’s no direct evidence of the Trojan Horse—we don’t even know that it existed,” Schauer explains. “In a way, there’s a lot of extrapolation and guesswork involved … We have to build it off of the things we do know.” There are literary references to it, but those are from hundreds of years later, and no wooden objects survived that period since wood breaks down. That meant student researches dug through texts to learn what it might have looked like at the time and examined clay and wooden pieces from the period to get a sense for how they would have depicted a horse stylistically. They’re applying shipbuilding techniques from the time to the horse, as its body will be curved much like a hull of a ship.
Either way, Schauer has found it to be a fascinating thought exercise, and she’s enjoyed the challenge of translating two-dimensional paintings into a positively massive three-dimensional form.
Diamond, too, says she’s learned so much since the $2.25 million project kicked off last year. She says working as a history detective is exactly what the museum encourages in each of its adult workshops, kids classes and symposiums, which made this collaboration with Handshouse a perfect fit. “The skills we need in life aren’t necessarily in a book,” she says. “That’s what real spies have to do, and it’s also what businesspeople have to do.”
In this way, she says, the Trojan Horse is the most fitting icon possible for the museum’s new building. And what an icon it will be—the towering sculpture will be the first thing that people see when they get to the museum, but people will even be able to see it when they fly over D.C.
“I think it’s going to bring so much fun and excitement and history and education to the museum. That’s what the Spy Museum does,” Diamond effuses. “We have a vision that people are going to say, ‘Meet me at the horse!’”