Remains of the past for the future: politics of the present

It’s on rainy, soggy miserable English summer days like this that I am delighted to be a museum archaeologist. As a curator responsible for some 80,000 artefacts here in UCL’s Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, there’s plenty to keep me busy indoors (as I talked about last year). It does not, however, mean I’m insulated from the outside world, its problems and politics. And it is not all blue skies out there.

Sunshine. An Amarna royal around 1350 BC. Excavated by Flinders Petrie's teams (UC040)

Sunshine. Image of Nefertit around 1350 BC. Excavated by Flinders Petrie’s teams (UC040)

Today I’ve been thinking a lot about the legacies of what we, as archaeologists, do. For instance, one our fundamental principles is that it is essential to record what is found and from where, since once you dig something up, you’ve destroyed its context. Museums are then often the caretakers of such discoveries and their related archives, supposedly to be held in trust for future generations. But for how long and why? We look to the past a lot in our profession, but we rarely look more than a few decades into the future. Yet here I am, surrounded by the legacy of more than a century of archaeological fieldwork in Egypt. I hope it will remain safe and accessible for centuries (millennia?) to come.

Displays in UCL's Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology

Displays in UCL’s Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology

The why is because archaeology is not just the moment of discovery. Although we endeavour to publish fully, what we present is always to some degree subjective and affected by our own social, intellectual and political contexts. Archaeology is never-ending project of interpretation, questioning and re-interpretation. The objects we recover are therefore important resources for further research, teaching, outreach and engagement. They will mean different things, to different communities. We also need the archives not just as a historical footnote, for amusing anecdotes or to add a nostalgic flavour to exhibitions. They’re also archaeological objects, documents for further enquiry and resources for examining how we come to know what we know about the past.

Hilda Petrie directing her husband on excavations at Abydos, Egypt in 1922.

Hilda Petrie directing her husband on excavations at Abydos, Egypt in 1922.

For how long do we hold things? Well, that also depends on social, intellectual and political contexts. Most museums in the UK can de-accession objects, but there are clear ethical guidelines on doing so. I spent much of today reviewing these following a workshop last week where I met with curators, journalists, professional museum organisations, academics and campaigners to discuss two cases where those ethical guidelines were clearly contravened. This included the financially-motivated sale of an ancient Egyptian statue by Northampton Borough Council. It was sold at Christie’s auction house to a private, anonymous buyer for an exorbitant sum. Amongst the many reasons why we should be angry is the fact that such actions simply fuel powerful market forces that ultimately encourage looting of archaeological sites and the destruction of the past.
I made similar arguments last year when the St Louis Branch of the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) put objects excavated by Flinders Petrie’s teams in 1914 on the Bonhams’ auction block. That an archaeological organisation would reduce archaeology to an economic value is, to me, shocking and they were rightly admonished by the central branch of the AIA. These were just a few of the hundreds of thousands of objects excavated in Egypt that were sent to institutions around the world. It is a huge legacy that we have an ongoing duty of care for, as I’m currently investigating through an AHRC-funded project. As stewards of the past, we archaeologists have a professional responsibility to act ethically, to be politically aware of our actions and to be cognizant of the wider social context in which we work. Otherwise I don’t believe you can consider yourself an archaeologist.

Present-ing Archaeology: the museum curator

I’m one of those archaeologists that doesn’t dig, an Egyptologist that can’t read hieroglyphs and the museum curator who is not primarily interested in exhibitions. So what do I do?

I have the privilege of working with the material traces of past societies, be that a 1.8 million-year old hand axe, a 5000-year old child’s garment, or records made by archaeologists 130 years ago.

Back of a 5000-year old garment from the Egyptian cemetery of Tarkhan (UC28614B )

Back of a 5000-year old garment from the Egyptian cemetery of Tarkhan (UC28614B )

These are just some of the 80,000 artefacts and 1000s of archival materials in the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, UCL, where I work.

Petrie Museum galleries at UCL.

Petrie Museum galleries at UCL.

It’s the stuff that has survived from the past that has always drawn me to museums, the challenge of making sense of it and of how others make sense of it.

A large part of my job is balancing the many competing demands upon the collection: researchers seeking samples for analysis, lecturers requesting objects for handling in class, other museums wanting to borrow artefacts, TV companies demanding items for feature documentaries and the public programme wanting pieces for events. We want the collection to be visible, to be used, to be inspiring. At the same time many things have survived for thousands of years and I want them to survive a few thousand more. Negotiating between access and risk is a constant fret.

For a job that requires working with stuff I still seem to spend a lot of time in front of the computer. So my day began like millions of others with chime of the computer booting up and the impatient chirping of voicemails waiting on my phone. This morning my inboxes contained a glut of messages from journalists digging around for quotes related to last night’s news that Christie’s sold a museum object from Northampton. A shocking and completely unethical strategy by a local council to raise money. Their defence that it will fund museum expansion is a nonsense since they’ve completely undermined the very purpose of a museum to safeguard cultural heritage and make is accessible. The councillor’s lame argument that it wasn’t on display anyway shows how unaware he is of what a museum does: it looks after collections whether they are on display or not. Just because they are in store does not mean that they’re not being accessed, researched, or might have an important role in the future. It is also a parochial view that doesn’t acknowledge that in sanctioning high commercial values on antiquities they are just fuelling the illicit trade of antiquities across the world and destructive looting of archaeological sites in Egypt. It really does affect people’s lives. This morning then I was an advocate for archaeology’s cultural value in the present and for ethical museum practice.

After the emails and a few strategy meetings I finally got time in the gallery before it opened to the public. One of my ongoing projects is to introduce more public-friendly text into the displays. I’ve written books and lots of academic papers on archaeology, but writing 3-sentence labels? Now that’s hard. And even harder is deciding what colour to use to highlight the objects. Blue? Zingy blue? What do you think?

Prehistoric Egyptian pottery vessel with world's earliest depiction of a loom (c. 3650 BC) Petrie Museum UC9547

Prehistoric Egyptian pottery vessel with world’s earliest depiction of a loom (c. 3650 BC) Petrie Museum UC9547

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Some things aren’t on display because they’re simply too big for our cramped gallery space. This includes these ancient bows, which a researcher is coming to study on Monday.

Egyptian bow. c. 2000 BC

Egyptian bow. c. 2000 BC

They’re currently above the cases, so the last order of business today will be retrieving them in preparation for their examination next week. Just because they’re not on exhibit does not mean they’re not used. It is a resource open to all and you can see it all here.