Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Histories of Ancient Lives, Artefacts and Tunnels: A week of London Exhibitions

I spent a productive few days in London last week in libraries and archives undertaking research for my thesis. While the majority of my time was spent reading, scanning and writing as quickly as I possibly could, true to form I also made time to visit some current exhibitions, all of which had a strong focus on archaeology. 

The first (and admittedly the laziest as I was studying in the British Museum) was their current Room 3 exhibition on the Jericho Skull. While I was aware of this skull in the collection, I'm ashamed to say I was often one of those BM staff who would whizz past its permanent display on the way to the canteen. Room 3 displays - those in the small room immediately to the right as you enter the Museum - are an ideal platform to present the fascinating individual stories of objects which may otherwise be lost in the vast displays upstairs. 

Not only that, they are an opportunity to test more innovative interpretation of objects as a case study for future display. For the case of the Jericho Skull, I especially liked the way that the female excavator of the skull, Kathleen Mary Kenyon (on behalf of the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem) was given a leading role in the panels to tell the story of the discovery to younger visitors and to ask them questions directly which is a great engagement tool. These panels are also in a bright colour and sit at a lower height for younger visitors. Here, a complex (and sometimes controversial) story of archaeological excavation is presented not only through the Skull itself and the interpretation panels, but also through a 3D print of the skull beneath the plaster which reveals further information about the individual which would not otherwise have been known.

The exhibition also includes a facial reconstruction of the male individual, based on the 3D print of the skull. While facial reconstructions, particularly of ancient individuals, are inevitably subjective to a degree, it is always fascinating to gaze on the (potential) face of an individual who lived, and died, thousands of years ago, and this reconstruction allows the visitor to do just that.

My second exhibition was the Petrie Museum's 'Exporting Egypt', in association with the ongoing collaborative AHRC-funded project between UCL and the Griffith Institute, University of Oxford. This exhibition explores the history of licensed British excavations in Egypt from the 1880s to the 1980s (before the UNESCO Convention came into full force) through a critical lens, presenting the background to the object 'partage' system whereby objects excavated in Egypt were legally exported and distributed to individuals and institutions who sponsored the expeditions. One of the main aims of the 'Artefacts' project is to critically question this practice of object distribution and assess how it impacted on the relationships between archaeology, Egyptology and museums, and this is presented in several ways in this exhibition. One of the most effective is a display on the 'Harageh Treasure', excavated by the British School of Archaeology in Egypt (BSAE) during 1913-14, which was put up for auction by Bonhams in 2014 on behalf of the Archaeological Institute of America’s (AIA) St Louis Chapter.

 This case questions 'Who Owns Antiquities' - since the 'Harageh Treasure' held precise archaeological provenance through the published accounts of the excavators, this only helped to create a secure biography for the objects. But as they were allotted to the AIA by the BSAE on the grounds that they were a public institution, this sale was contested on ethical grounds since they would no longer be made available to the public and, if sold on the open market, may be transferred to collections which may not provide sufficient safeguards and make them accessible. This case thus challenges the public's perception of how Egyptian objects came to be in UK collections, how auction house sales of objects remain controversial, and in the end to question who actually owns the excavated material in the first place. I especially enjoyed some of the visitor responses to this question, which were written on object labels and hung in the gallery.

My third exhibition during my week in London was the Museum of London Docklands' 'Tunnel: the Archaeology of Crossrail' exhibition, which presented 8000 years of London's history excavated during the construction of the new Elizabeth Line. I'd never visited this site before, so I was looking forward to seeing how it would compare with the Museum of London, one of my favourite galleries in the city. I wasn't disappointed: I made a bee-line for the 'Tunnel' exhibition and just loved the PPE equipment made available to younger visitors, before they even entered the exhibition, to make them feel like they were one of the workmen on the Crossrail project. In fact the whole exhibition was very child-friendly - I visited during Half Term and the gallery was full of fascinated young visitors with their magnifying glasses (made available throughout the exhibition) and asking their parents lots of interesting questions.

It is truly the most effective interpretation of archaeological work that I've ever seen in a museum exhibition: from the clipboards with completed context sheets alongside associated objects and human remains, to the display on stratigraphy and video presentations from archaeologists and post-excavation researchers presenting their work to the visitors, the scientific basis for the archaeological excavations was projected loud and clear. This message didn't detract from the exhibition design however, which was eye-catching, sleek and clear to follow as the story made its way along the length of the tunnel excavations. 

While I used my Museums Association membership card to enter other exhibitions that week (including Undressed at the V&A), I have chosen to focus on my visits to these three free-to-enter exhibitions, to highlight how much can be done for free in London and hopefully also show how much can be gained from a little further exploration in the city.

Thursday, 28 April 2016

Death on the Nile at the Fitzwilliam: Uncovering the afterlife of ancient Egypt

I visited the Fitzwilliam's 'Death on the Nile' exhibition on a particularly sunny April day - which inadvertently helped to create a sense of entering the netherworld, moving from light into darkness.

The concept of this exhibition was immediately appealing to me: to reconnect ancient anonymous faces on coffins with the craftsmen who made them, and the people who commissioned them. This idea of revealing the people behind the objects is, quite rightly, becoming increasingly popular in museum displays, and helps to create a real sense of context for the visitor. Whether the ancient Egyptians themselves, or modern excavators or scientists, relating to people seems a much more natural approach to such displays, rather than only presenting complex ideas and chronologies which can be much more challenging in a limited space.

On entering the exhibition, the visitor is introduced to ancient Egyptian burial customs, beginning with a reconstructed Predynastic grave with a silhouette of a naturally mummified crouched burial. The subtle lighting throughout is especially effective in this first room, where golden faces from coffins at the exhibition entrance catch the light beautifully.

The exhibition follows a chronological thread, moving into the Middle Kingdom where wooden tomb models are displayed with details of their context and technology. The models from the tomb of Khety at Beni Hasan stand out, which I was especially interested in given the John Garstang connection. Perhaps there would have been an opportunity here to display more of Garstang's archive photography to give a greater sense of context, but this is really an aside as the focus is mainly on the detailed technology of the objects. 

Aside from providing details of individual agency in the creation of these objects, the exhibition uniquely includes a live conservation area, where visitors can get a real sense of the painstaking work that goes into conserving ancient objects. I also enjoyed seeing the experimental objects on display, made by Dr Geoffrey Killen, and the attempts to recreate the ancient coffin technology  based on modern non-invasive analysis of the ancient objects, including data from CT scans. Video footage of craft techniques were also captivating for visitors, including one family who, on watching the videos together, could then more easily explain the father's work as a carpenter to his children.

The exhibition succeeded to reveal the people and stories behind the objects and it was great to see much of the Fitzwilliam's collection on display in a fresh, new context. The fact that no photography was allowed in the exhibition is unfortunate but it was good to see that an exhibition audio guide and comprehensive publication were available, should visitors wish to enhance their visit further.

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Objectively Speaking: The Value and Practice of Object-Based Teaching

I attended a conference and series of round-table workshops at the British Museum on 4th April, which aimed to explore the value of object-based teaching and to capture the impact of different object-based approaches to teaching and learning.

I described my experience for the British Museum's International Training Programme blog, which you can find here.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Egypt in London 2014: Carreras Cigarette Factory, Camden

I'm back in London and happily reviving my discoveries of Egyptianising architecture in the city. This week I was walking down Mornington Crescent with friends when something caught my attention, and as a result I was completely soaked by a passing bus veering through a huge puddle! Nevertheless my spirits weren't too dampened since that distraction was in fact the wonderful old Carreras Cigarette Factory in Camden, now Greater London House. 

This building is another incredible illustration of the early 20th century vogue for Egyptianising architecture in London, much like the Carlton Cinema on Essex Road, juxtaposing 'traditional' ancient Egyptian temple elements in a distinctive Art Deco design. It was erected in 1926-28 by the Carreras Tobacco Company and the original design included an ornamental winged solar disk and two colossal seated bronze cat statues flanking the entrance in the form of the cat goddess Bastet. Carreras used the black cat as a marketing device; their cigarette packets also included a similar image. The main facade of the building was composed of a row of twelve brightly-painted papyriform columns and the handrails of the main entrance took the form of serpents. The outer ornamental railings incorporated a series of hieroglyphic motifs including the djed-pillar and decorative lotiform elements.

The official opening of the building was a grand event, including a procession of cast members from the contemporary theatrical production of Aida and a chariot race on Hampstead Road. It has since been argued that this design may have been deliberately chosen by the company in order to associate their cigarettes with the glamour and luxury of ancient Egypt. 

During the 1960s many of the original Egyptianising elements were removed, in order to give the building a more minimalist modern appearance when it became Greater London House. Thankfully these elements were restored in the 1990s when the building was returned to its former Egyptianising glory, though interestingly the winged solar disc above the main entrance was not restored since it was considered to closely resemble the eagle imagery of the Third Reich. 

A very pleasant chance discovery on a rainy London day!

Thursday, 24 July 2014

For the Love of Tut: Discovering Tutankhamun at the Ashmolean Museum

'There is only one topic of conversation... one cannot escape the name of Tut-Ankh-Amun anywhere...'
New York Times, 1923

I had the pleasure of attending the private view of the 'Discovering Tutankhamun' exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum yesterday; a major Egyptological event which delighted the media and the hundreds of guests who enjoyed the great hospitality of the Museum as well as a sneak-peak at the Museum's summer exhibition. 

The exhibition was officially opened by the 8th Earl of Carnarvon, whose rousing speech followed those of Christopher Brown (Ashmolean Director) and Prof. Richard Parkinson (Professor of Egyptology, University of Oxford). 

On entering the exhibition the visitor is introduced to a gallery space showcasing Howard Carter and his work in Egypt before the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb - the project which subsequently became his life's pursuit. A personal favourite is a famous painting from Carter's work at the temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahri in Thebes showing a beautifully reproduced Horus falcon. 

The background setting moves rapidly into the wonderful discovery, told through diary entries and correspondence, which Carter made on November 4th 1922 - the first step leading down to the tomb, which he and the 5th Earl of Carnarvon entered three weeks later. 

The beauty of the exhibition is that it tells the story of the discovery by intertwining ancient and contemporary objects with rare archive material from the Griffith Institute, and in doing so effectively illustrates the different stages of discovery, study and conservation, and ultimately the painstaking removal of the many hundreds of objects from the tomb, not to mention the politics associated with such an overwhelmingly vast task.

This technique of display highlights the different roles of those individuals involved in the project - artists, conservators, linguists, scientists, and photographers: the products of Harry Burton's pioneering photographic work in particular formed impressive backdrops to the gallery. I was pleased to see Griffith archive material that I'd never seen before, including beautiful and incredibly detailed artwork of some of the finds from the tomb by Nina de Garis Davies and Winifred Brunton

The exhibition then transports the visitor back in time to the 1920s, when 'Tut-Mania' took over the world. This immersive experience includes cases full of Egyptianising and Tut-inspired products from the UK and beyond, including a Cartier brooch in the form of a winged scarab and some tiny ladies' gloves embroidered with ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, all while listening to the original recording of 'Old King Tut' by William Jerome and Harry von Tilzer from the height of Tut-Mania in 1923. 

It was also fascinating to see the general public's reception of the great discovery - from letters written to Carter asking for 'souvenirs' from the tomb, to those wishing him luck and giving him tips on how to avoid the 'Curse of the Pharaoh' which had already 'claimed' Lord Carnarvon. Contemporary newspaper articles are also on display, alongside Carter's wooden cabinet full of slides which he used to present the incredible story of his discovery to an insatiable public. 

The exhibition concludes with an overview of Tutankhamun's historical context: the Amarna Period and it's aftermath. Here I was delighted to see objects from Berlin and the Metropolitan Museum which I'd never seen before, as well as large-scale British Museum sculpture in a new display context including a statue of Tutankhamun as a priest of the god Hapy, likely from Karnak (EA 75). My only issue with this display is that the complex history of the period is somewhat condensed in order to fit into that space, but of course if the visitor would like to know more then they can certainly fill their boots in the excellent Amarna Period section of the Museum's newly-redisplayed Egypt and Sudan gallery downstairs. 

A final section introducing the recent facsimile of the tomb made by Factum Arte, and an exhibition of replica objects from the tomb by Semmel Concerts, explores current issues in presenting Tutankhamun and his story to a worldwide audience always thirsty for their own 'Tut' experience. The icing on the cake was seeing digitally coloured versions of the original 1920s black-and-white photography, and the seated portrait of Howard Carter, painted by his brother William, from the Griffith Institute. 

As you might tell there is far too much for me to fit into one post and this is really only skimming the surface of an exhibition truly full of 'wonderful things'; things which have been successfully curated to make the story of 'Discovering Tutankhamun' appeal to the widest possible audience, whilst including all of the finer details necessary for a nuanced discussion of the discovery. 

I'd like to extend grateful thanks to the Ashmolean Museum, and to Liam McNamara for the opportunity to attend the Private View. I look forward to attending the exhibition events due to run over the coming months (the exhibition runs from 24 July 2014 to 2 November 2014) - in the meantime follow #DiscoverTut to find out more and see the exhibition trailer here

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Future Curators hit the North-East: Visiting the Great North Museum and Durham's Oriental Museum

One of the GNM: Hancock displays
Despite living within spitting distance of the north-east for the past 27 years I had never visited Newcastle or Durham, so I was particularly happy when a Future Curators visit was arranged this week. After a tour of their stores we visited the Great North Museum: Hancock and I made a bee-line for their Egyptian galleries. The GNM's Egyptian collection is made up partly of their own objects and also of a long-term loan from the British Museum. The gallery was arranged thematically which in most cases worked well, typically splitting the gallery into aspects of life and death in ancient Egypt. 

Visitors heading into the Afterlife interactive
Signing and video accompaniment
Snakes in the Underworld
The way the museum did this however was pretty innovative: after visiting the 'life' part of the gallery, the visitor passes through an interactive doorway into the next life on the condition that they successfully pass through the dangers of the underworld. We visited at the end of the day when the gallery was quiet and the experience was a bit disconcerting, especially when the snakes slither past! A booming voice reads through the tasks while a computer screen with signing and subtitles for those hard of hearing, making it a meaningful and memorable experience for all visitors. The collection itself contains several important pieces and overall I enjoyed the layout and design of the gallery though I would have liked to see more information on the object labels, particularly provenance and accession number, and the gallery also had a number of other interactive stations but unfortunately some of these were out of order so I look forward to using them on my next visit.

Durham Oriental Museum
Sphinx of Tuthmosis IV
We then trekked to Durham's Oriental Museum where we were greeted by friendly staff and a beautiful museum, not so large in size but with an incredibly important Egyptian collection. Two galleries are named after Prof. T. W. Thacker, Director of Oriental Studies at Durham from the 1940s until 1977 and contain objects acquired from the Duke of Northumberland's Collection (Prudhoe Collection), the Wellcome Collection and from the sponsorship of fieldwork in Egypt and Sudan during the 1950s and 1960s. 

Steatite statuette of Amenhotep III
The overall layout of the galleries and use of the space was appealing; each object is relevant to the thread of the collection story and several key pieces were exhibited in their own cases, well-lit, as highlight objects, including my personal favourite - a glazed steatite statuette of Amenhotep III from his memorial temple at Kom el-Heitan, Thebes (EG 3998). I was also pleasantly surprised to learn that a diorite sphinx of Tuthmosis IV on display (EG 3997) was the inspiration for the two bronze sphinxes flanking Cleopatra's Needle on the Embankment in London. And of course it was a pleasure to finally see the beautiful wooden servant girl; probably the most famous Egyptian object in the whole collection (EG 4007; temp. Amenhotep III).

Throughout the museum the panels were word-heavy which I don't think is necessarily a bad thing for a University Museum, though I found myself sticking with the object labels provided as laminated handouts next to each case; a technique which I would normally question as it can sometimes make finding the objects rather time-consuming, however it worked very well as most cases were not particularly full and the labels contained a lot of useful information. 
Snippet of the 'Satire of the Trades' alongside ancient Egyptian tools
I also enjoyed the use of snippets of Egyptian literature in some of the cases, which added interest and helped to bring the objects to life for visitors. I think my only bugbear was the lack of Sudanese objects on display from their collection, or when they were on display (e.g. a vessel from Buhen) the provenance was not named. Overall though definitely worth a visit and happy to have had the opportunity to spend an afternoon in the galleries and have a chat with the staff of the museum.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Visiting West Park Museum, Macclesfield

This week I visited West Park Museum in Macclesfield on an afternoon trip with my
West Park Museum
supervisor Campbell to see their collection of Egyptian objects. West Park's small but well formed Egyptian collection came into being because of a Miss Marianne Brocklehurst, the child of a wealthy silk manufacturer in Macclesfield and a lady with a keen interest in all things ancient Egyptian. 

Miss Brocklehurst travelled around Egypt with her companion Mary Booth, and the pair became known as the 'MBs'. They had a keen eye for high-quality Egyptian objects and had the opportunity to acquire a personal collection when they also had the chance of making use of their contact with Luxor's infamous Abd el-Rassoul family from whom they bought a number of objects including this ring preserving the cartouche of Ramesses II. 
Ring with the cartouche of Ramesses II
Miss Brocklehurst was also a friend of Amelia Edwards (the founder of the Egypt Exploration Fund, now Society) and subsequently became a member and donor of the EES, forming a Macclesfield Branch of the EES with Mary Booth as secretary. As a result of her membership Miss Brocklehurst received a portion of the excavated objects with secure contexts which complemented her own personal Egyptian collection. 

West Park Museum was built in 1898 at the instruction of Miss Brocklehurst but unfortunately she became ill and died before she was able to visit the museum herself. From museum records it is clear that Miss Brocklehurst's Egyptian collection was donated and exhibited at West Park from the very beginning, and now forms an integral part of West Park's modest collection of ancient objects, anthropology, natural history and fine art.  

One of the most important Egyptian objects at West Park is this beautiful steatite statuette of Queen Tiye, Great Royal Wife of pharaoh Amenhotep III (1390-1352 BC) depicting the queen standing, wearing an enveloping wig and vulture headdress which may originally have been fronted with two uraei. She holds a flywhisk in her left hand and a lotus in her right, and the back pillar preserves her name: Hmt-nsw wrt Tyy (Great Royal Wife, Tiye). This object is truly a masterpiece and I was very lucky to have had the privilege of handling and examining it on my visit. 

The West Park Museum may be small, and perhaps a little out of the way, but it is definitely worth a visit and you will be rewarded with a beautiful collection of Egyptian objects including several outstanding unique pieces, together with a CD ROM catalogue of the Egyptian collection which you can purchase from the museum shop. I'd like to thank Honorary Curator of West Park, Alan Hayward, for his generosity and for facilitating access to the collection.
Yan Tan Tethera: A rhyme derived from a Brythonic Celtic language used by shepherds to keep sheep in many parts of England and Southern Scotland.

Until the Industrial Revolution, the use of traditional number systems was common among shepherds, especially in the Dales of the Lake District.

[This Blog is best viewed in Mozilla Firefox]

Total Pageviews