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.
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.
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?
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.
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.