museum curator

Betsy Ross’ Pitchers

I have been an archeologist in the U.S. National Park Service for 24 years (can it really be that long?), where I now serve as head of the History Branch at Independence National Historical Park (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania). Today, June 27th, I spent several hours working with colleagues preparing a small exhibit commemorating the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812. This temporary exhibit will feature two ceramic pitchers we recovered in Independence Park during the excavations at the site where the National Constitution Center now stands. The pitchers were found in the bottom of a privy pit (outhouse) that once stood in the backyard
behind the house where Betsy Ross spent her last years.  Did Betsy throw them away?

Pitchers found in the bottom of a privy pit

Made in England between about 1816 and 1820, the pitchers bear images of two War of 1812 naval engagements in which the fledgling U. S. Navy was victorious over the mighty British Navy.  English potteries produced many such designs specifically for  export to the American market. In so doing, they were helping an adversary celebrate a victory over their own navy. I don’t know if they appreciated the irony in that. I do know that they were glad to find a willing market for their goods.  Whatever they meant to the British potters, for Betsy Ross’ family they probably marked the stirrings of national pride sparked by the War.
During the course of the day I also spent time meeting with a colleague from our maintenance staff trying to figure out the safest way to remove an obsolete 1970’s ventilation duct from inside the vault that protects some of the remains of Benjamin Franklin’s house at our in-ground archeology exhibit in Franklin Court. There was yet another meeting today. This last one involved deciding on how the archeologists and the museum curator in the park could best assist a team of faculty and students from Drexel University’s Digital Media program in adding accurate details to a 3D digital reconstruction of the 18th century house in which a African American coachman lived. The reconstruction is base on another site we excavated within the park.…and of course, as every day, there was lots and lots of paperwork to fill out. I do work for the government, after all.

Jed Levin
Independence National Historical Park
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA

A Day in the Life of a Curator & PhD Student From Down Under

A6008. Roman pendant earrings, 1st-2nd Century AD. Collection: Powerhouse Museum. Image © Powerhouse Museum, all rights reserved.

A6008 – Roman pendant earrings. Collection: Powerhouse Museum. Image © Powerhouse Museum, all rights reserved.

So I thought I’d share some insights into what it’s like working in archaeology Down Under (i.e. in Australia!) – specifically, in my role as an Assistant Curator of Design & Society at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum and as a PhD candidate in Egyptology at Macquarie University.

As a museum curator, I don’t really have a ‘typical’ day. In my position, I work quite broadly across the collection, from my specialist area in archaeology and antiquities (especially Egyptian, of which the Powerhouse Museum has a small but select collection) all the way through to Muslim fashion, Central Asian and African textiles, historical and contemporary furniture, numismatics, ceramics and so on.

I always start the day by answering emails (actually, as I’m always connected, you can often find me answering emails throughout the night as well!) before I turn my attention to the different projects I am working on (rarely, if ever, do I work on a single project at a time – but that’s what I love most about being a curator – the rich variety in what we do!).

Of interest to the ‘Day of Archaeology’ is an upcoming jewellery exhibition I am working on with my colleague, Eva Czernis-Ryl, which is both a chronological and thematic look at the history of jewellery collecting in Australia. I am involved with developing the antiquities section with fellow archaeologist, Dr Paul Donnelly, and have spent the last couple of days researching the nature of ancient jewellery in the many different public and private collections, which span almost all states and territories in Australia. Right now I’m reading the exhibition catalogue to ‘Beauty and Betrayal – Ancient and Neo-Classical Jewellery’ held at the Nicholson Museum, Sydney in 2010 and am liaising with Macquarie University’s Museum of Ancient Cultures with regards to viewing some of their objects which we’d eventually like to have on loan.

I’ve also been down in our basement re-looking at some of our ancient jewellery, including our Egyptian amulets, faience beaded necklaces and beautiful Roman pendant earrings. At this early stage, we’re gathering our corpus of ancient jewellery objects from which we can potentially choose from to narrate our story (note – the exhibition is not scheduled to open until October 2013). We’re most interested in details like provenance (where was the piece excavated and how did it come into the collection?), interesting stories (around ownership and use) and of course, more practical matters like condition (is it suitable for display?) and costs (since loan objects involve fees, including insurance).

When I’m not ‘curating’, I’m studying for my PhD and doing other things ‘Egyptian’! My thesis topic is on the typological dating of false doors and funerary stelae of the First Intermediate Period (specifically, the reigns of Pepy II to Mentuhotep II – roughly 2400 – 2100 BC).

In brief, the First Intermediate Period was the first time in Egyptian dynastic history where there was a collapse in central kingship and a shift in administration from the Memphite capital to the provinces. My reason for studying false doors and stelae (slabs of inscribed stone usually placed in the west wall of the tomb) is that they are one of the best examples of Egyptian material culture which can be traced continuously at this time, which means they potentially offer an important benchmark for dating other objects and events of the period.

At this very moment, for example, I am transliterating and translating the stela of nfr-TbAw from a private French collection, one of almost 600 false doors and stelae I am working through. Apart from transliterating and translating them, I am also recording information about the owner and his/her titles, the collection location, acquisition/excavation details, bibliographic references, suggested date, commentary, parallels etc. Simultaneous to this, I am starting to test certain dating criteria on subsets of my corpus – like the writing of the Htp dj nswt offering formula as it applies to all those tomb owners holding particular groupings of titles.

To top things off, I’m in the preparation stages of a fairly long visit to Egypt! In September I will be heading to Tell el-Amarna to do some cataloguing work and will be returning again in November-December to work at the South Tombs cemetery. InshAllah or “God Willing”, as they say, I am also scheduled to lead a couple of tour groups through Egypt and the Western Desert. Never a dull moment, I can truly say I’ve found my calling in archaeology!

Prehistory by phone and e-mail

Hello! I’m Sue Greaney, and I work for English Heritage as a Senior Properties Historian. A historian, I hear you gasp? I thought this was a place for archaeologists? Fear not, I am an archaeologist – my job title isn’t particularly accurate as its archaeology and prehistory that are my specialist subjects!

Today is an office day in Swindon. Not huge amounts of digging in my life, unfortunately, unless you count digging in archives, libraries and my own computer filing system. My day also doesn’t have any meetings or scheduled site visits in it, so that is a bonus – I’ll be catching up on quite a few different pieces of work, so you’ll get an idea of the wide range of things I do.

Me at my desk.

The major project that I’m currently working on is the new visitor centre that we are planning for Stonehenge. I’m the archaeologist advising on the content of the new exhibition and the new interpretation for our thousands of visitors. It’s a really important project and most days I have to pinch myself that I get to work on it. I work closely with a small project team dedicated to the interpretation, learning and outreach elements of the project.

First thing I uploaded photographs from a field visit to Kilmartin Glen in Argyll, Scotland last week and put them on our SharePoint site. Not a usual port of call as by its very nature working for English Heritage usually involves England! But Kilmartin House Museum is renowned as a prehistoric museum, and the landscape has been fully interpreted and designed for visitors to explore. It even has two podcasts. We went to see the new European funded interpretation scheme in the area, to meet the museum curator. It’s not a dissimilar approach to the one we’ll be taking at Stonehenge– we want to equip people in our visitor centre to understand Stonehenge, but also the various monuments and features they’ll see in the landscape, and also encourage them to get out and explore the rest of the World Heritage Site.

Some of the new interpretation at Kilmartin Glen

A series of phone calls followed. Talked to an interpretation colleague about the reconstructed Neolithic houses that we’re planning for the external gallery at the visitor centre, arrangements for a site visit to Stonehenge next week and our temporary exhibition programme. Talked to a scientist colleague of mine down at Fort Cumberland about some externally commissioned research. Talked to a visitor operations colleague at Stonehenge about the Neolithic houses. You wouldn’t believe what a busy summer they’re having! Couple of e-mails sent to Stonehenge team members and archives staff at our National Monuments Record.

Tea break. Right, onto some proper work. The rest of the morning was spent doing some research that will support the contents of our display cases in the visitor centre exhibition. This involved writing up a paper for discussion at a meeting next week, using our own internal (and rather wonderful) webGIS, the Pastscape website (we have our own internal databases behind this, but Pastscape works so well I use it a lot) and the fantastic Wiltshire Heritage Museum collections database. I can’t tell you much about what’s actually going into the cases, as it wouldn’t be a surprise when you all come and see the new visitor centre when it opens in 2013! Suffice to say that I spent the rest of the morning and a few hours after lunch looking at lovely prehistoric objects and reading antiquarian and 20th century archaeology accounts of their discoveries.

After sending off this and another paper to the Stonehenge interpretation officer and curator, I sent confirmation to a freelance researcher that we were taking him on for a small piece of synthesis/writing work.

Ok, time to clear some of my e-mail inbox. I’ve been so busy this week that several things have been neglected for quite a few days. First, I arranged a meeting date with colleagues in September to review the next stages of the Stonehenge scanning project. Next, I responded to a query from the curator at Salisbury Museum about where the late Paul Ashbee’s archive is residing. I downloaded some mapping tiles that I need to create a map which will go on an interpretation panel at Kingston Russell Stone Circle, one of our small free properties down in Dorset. When I’m not thinking about Stonehenge I usually pick up a few interpretation projects at our free properties.

Kingston Russell stone circle, Dorset

And then the most important e-mail of the day – anyone up for the pub? Well, it is a Friday! Cue random exchange of e-mails from my friends at work.

Next I respond to request from BBC Learning for an EH expert on Vikings. Not sure if we have one of those! And reply with photographs to a colleague of mine in York who is working on the EH Coastal Risk Assessment and wanted some information about cliff erosion near one of our guardianship properties at Halangy Down on the Isles of Scilly. This is somewhere I did some research and interpretation a couple of years ago.

Me at Halangy Porth beach, Isles of Scilly, a few years ago

Well, there ends the Day of Archaeology. Now to add the blog post! Let’s do this again next year.