Written by Natalie Looyer, University of Canterbury, New Zealand
I spent my years as an undergraduate student in the University of Canterbury Classics Department in Christchurch hearing stories of Miss Marion Steven, a legendary past academic of the Department.
Those in the Department who had known Marion spoke about her with warmth and joviality. When the opportunity for an oral history project on Marion’s life was suggested, I jumped at the chance and set about interviewing family, friends, past students and colleagues of Marion. The project took me up and down New Zealand and as far as Sydney and Adelaide where I followed the threads of Marion’s network. Throughout these interviews – twelve in total – I learned about Marion’s impressive career as a scholar, a collector and a teacher. Through the memories of those closest to her I came to understand the extraordinary legacy that she left behind, not only in her remarkable collection of antiquities, but also in the influence that she had on the lives of great Classics scholars whom she nurtured.
Marion began her academic career in Medicine, excelling at university and receiving a medical scholarship to a London Hospital. But she was rejected upon arrival, as her application had not made it clear that she was a woman. Marion then turned to Classics – perhaps what she had wished to study all along. She soon began teaching at the University, where her compassion for students earned her their respect. She valued the traditional learning of Latin and Greek, but she also valued material culture as a way of understanding life in the ancient world, which inspired her to begin collecting antiquities for her teaching.
The James Logie Memorial Collection was Marion’s most esteemed legacy: she founded this impressive collection of mostly Greek vases back in the mid-1950s, in honour of her late husband. It has since grown to become one of the most extensive collections of classical antiquities in New Zealand. I enjoyed studying the Collection up close, as artefacts were carefully held before us in the gloved hands of the curators. But things were a little different sixty years ago, as stories have endured of Marion regularly transporting her vases around in the front wicker basket of her bicycle.
Marion developed relationships with prestigious scholars such as Dale Trendall and John Beazley, which put the Logie Collection on the global map. But Marion’s most cherished relationships were to those in her close community. Her family and students remembered her as an advocate for young people, especially young women. She took her students seriously. She was generous with her time, hosting many of her students at her own house gatherings. And she was generous with her resources, gifting her collection of antiquities to the University for future generations of Classics students.
Marion continued to enjoy visits from her past students well into her retirement. One of my favourite comments in an interview comes from Professor Edwin Judge of Macquarie University, a past student of Marion. When speaking about his return visits to his hometown in Christchurch, he said, “Marion, we assumed, would always be there. And nothing could possibly be wrong in Christchurch with Marion there.”
Edwin’s comment seemed particularly pertinent in the context of the Christchurch earthquakes, which, eleven years after Marion’s passing, caused extensive damage to the Logie Collection. But Marion’s attitude – that if something fell out of her bike and broke, it could just be put back together again – stood the test of time. After an extensive rehabilitation project in 2014, the Logie Collection was fully conserved and is now on public display at the Teece Museum of Classical Antiquities in Central Christchurch. Marion’s legacy lives on in her collection, but as my interviewees pre-eminently remembered Marion’s warmth and generosity over her material contributions, I came to realise that perhaps her greatest gift was the way in which she fostered her community and those around her.
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The contribution made by women to ancient world studies in Australia and New Zealand has often been neglected. Our blog aims to bring you new research and insights into some of these remarkable women.
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