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Jury's out on heroes

Saints or sinners? A new exhibition invites you to decide. Adi Bloom reports

Johnny Depp portrayed pirates as liberators of distressed damsels and seekers of buried treasure in his role as Captain Jack Sparrow, in Pirates of the Caribbean.

Brad Pitt plays the ultimate hero, Achilles, fearless Greek warrior of the Trojan War, in the new blockbuster, Troy. But history is rarely as clear-cut as Hollywood would have us believe.

After killing Hector, the Trojan prince, Achilles sadistically dragged his body behind his chariot, as he circled the walls of Troy.

And, for centuries, pirates stole, rampaged and murdered their way across the high seas, terrorising law-abiding seafarers.

Such conflicts between idealised concepts of heroism, and the complex reality behind them, are explored in a new exhibition in Norwich. Heroes or Villains, which opens on June 8, is designed to question common attitudes in history and everyday life.

Tracy Harding, joint curator of the exhibition, said: "So often, history and the media just show one side. But people are very rarely black and white. You need to look at them from many angles."

To illustrate the point, Heroes or Villains includes figures, such as Charles Darwin, now regarded widely as heroes. "Everyone speaks fondly of Darwin now," said Ms Harding. "But at the time, he was a villain to religion. We've included a letter telling him that if he wants to save his soul, he has to stop what he is doing."

An area of the exhibition is devoted to David Beckham, highlighting his vilification following the 1998 World Cup when he was sent off for a petulant kick against an Argentinian. It then demonstrates his transformation, four years later, to saint-like figure, at whose broken metatarsal the country knelt to pray.

Laura Wilkinson, joint curator, said: "David Beckham's image is constantly in our face, but we don't know who he is. We just project what we want on to him.

"Children say they hate or love a person, but don't think about the different points of view. There are usually two sides to a story. We want them to question everything, to think about things in more detail and not be so quick to form judgments."

Sally Bishop, head of art at Hobart high, in Norwich, said: "So many heroes were also villains at one time. I hope the exhibition will teach pupils to look beneath media coverage, and see that perceptions are always changing."

Heroes or Villains opens at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich, on June 8, and runs until July 18. Tel: (01603) 593 199

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