Museum Studies

Curator Takes Vacation Only to Visit More Museums: How Taking My Work With Me Changed Everything

Mixing business with pleasure is not uncommon practice in the field of archaeology, as most archaeologists will tell you that they love their jobs. Sometimes, however, an opportunity will present itself so serendipitously that it can hardly be called “work” at all. Such was the case for me on a recent family vacation to Europe, where I came face to face with an important archaeological collection at the British Museum in London.

In June 2013, I accepted my first “real” job out of graduate school as Curator of Collections for the Marco Island Historical Society (MIHS) in Marco Island, Florida. I had finished my M.A. in Museum Studies at the University of Florida (UF) just six months prior, and in the meantime had been teaching an undergraduate anthropology course at UF while working as a Curatorial Assistant in the Anthropology Division at the Florida Museum of Natural History (FLMNH). My first assignment for the MIHS would be to develop a permanent exhibit on the prehistory of Marco Island for installation in the Marco Island Historical Museum. Needless to say, I had a lot to learn about Marco Island, not to mention life as a museum curator.

For those who are unfamiliar with Marco Island, it’s as picturesque as it sounds. The largest of Florida’s Ten Thousand Islands, Marco’s natural crescent beach and fertile waters make it a hotspot for retirees, vacationers, and fisher folk alike. However, many visitors don’t realize that Marco is also home to one of the most famous archaeological sites ever discovered in North America.

 

Just another day on Marco Island, Florida. Photo by Austin Bell.

 

In 1895, a retired British military officer named Charles Durnford was tarpon fishing in the area when he was informed of an unusual find in the muck of Key Marco (now Marco Island). Not wanting to miss out on the action, he quickly set sail for Marco to perform his own excavation. It was not long before he too uncovered incredibly well-preserved artifacts made of wood, gourd, and cordage, materials that often do not survive in archaeological sites. Knowing the potential significance of these rare items, Durnford took them all the way to Philadelphia in hopes of conferring with his friend at the University of Pennsylvania, where by chance he encountered Frank Hamilton Cushing. Cushing, a famous anthropologist from the Smithsonian Institution, confirmed the importance of the finds and was duly inspired to make his own visit to Marco. What Cushing found in his subsequent visits (1895 and 1896) is the stuff of legend, an archaeological site so spectacular that it has yet to be replicated in more than 115 years of archaeology in Southwest Florida. Among the finds were painted wooden masks, finely woven nets, fishing floats made of wood and gourd, and beautifully carved wooden figureheads, some of the finest examples of prehistoric Native American art ever discovered. The most famous of these is the “Key Marco cat,” now housed in the collections of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C. The cat is so well-known that it’s been featured on a United States postage stamp (see picture)! For archaeologists and archaeology enthusiasts, the Key Marco site serves as one of best known examples of a “wet site,” where biological materials not ordinarily preserved can add greater context to our understanding of prehistoric cultures.

 

The “Key Marco cat” on a 1989 U.S. postage stamp. Image courtesy of the Marco Island Historical Society.

 

While Durnford’s cavalier removal of artifacts from Key Marco would be frowned upon today (i.e., illegal), he had the foresight to not only write up his findings in The American Naturalist (1895), but also to donate the objects to the esteemed British Museum in his home country. The fifteen objects remain there to this day, one of which (a wooden tray) has been on permanent exhibit since 1999 as a representative piece of “the Americas.”

 

The Southeastern United States section of the British Museum’s “North America” exhibit. Note the Seminole patchwork shirt at the top. The wooden artifact on the floor in the back is from Marco Island. Photo by Austin Bell (July 4, 2013). © Trustees of the British Museum.

 

The “wooden tray” discovered by Durnford at Key Marco in 1895, as seen on public exhibition at the British Museum in London. Photo by Austin Bell (July 4, 2013). © Trustees of the British Museum.

 

As fate would have it, my family had organized a trip to Europe months in advance of my hiring at Marco Island. Not wanting to miss out on a rare opportunity to spend “quality time” with my parents and two sisters (not to mention our first ever family vacation overseas), I informed the MIHS of our plans and they generously allowed me to go ahead with them. The British Museum was already on our itinerary, but with my new interest in the Durnford Collection, I put in a last-minute request to see the objects themselves. Given the short notice and my relative inexperience in the field, I was doubtful that such a request could be honored, but I figured “why not ask?” Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised when the good folks at the British Museum quickly replied with an enthusiastic “yes,” as I’ve come to realize that people in the museum field often bend over backwards to help a colleague. So it came to pass that on July 4th, a date on which I normally would be celebrating my home country’s independence from Great Britain, I stood inside the British Museum’s Ethnographic Collection Storage building by the grace of several wonderful and accommodating staff members, thanking my lucky stars (and stripes) to be in Great Britain. It was there that I came face to face with the Durnford Collection, an experience I am unlikely to forget.

 

Excitement builds as we pass through the gate to the British Museum in London, England. Photo by Austin Bell (July 4, 2013).

 

Formulating a strategy for exploring the world-renowned British Museum in London, England. Photo by Austin Bell (July 4, 2013).

 

The objects themselves are relatively unremarkable, at least when compared to Cushing’s finds of 1896. The collection consists of several shell tools, some potsherds, a few wooden float pegs, some highly deteriorated netting and cordage, and several other fragmented wooden artifacts. What struck me almost immediately, however, was that these were the very artifacts that Cushing looked at in 1895, probably in a setting similar to this one (with these same artifacts strewn across a table in a non-descript room), and inspired him to take his now famous expedition to Marco Island. Not only were these fifteen objects an inspiration to Cushing, they basically set off the more than 100 years of stellar archaeology conducted in Southwest Florida since him. As a student and practitioner of both museology and archaeology, everything finally made sense in a way that sitting in a classroom never could. I had gone from the person who preserved artifacts to the person artifacts were preserved for, if only for a few fleeting hours. All those years of wondering “who will ever look at all this stuff?” seemed to wash away and my confidence in my career choice reinvigorated. Given the age of the objects (ca. 500-1500 A.D.), the fact that they had been in collections storage for nearly 117 years, and the understanding that conservation techniques were not what they are now, their condition was remarkably good. For someone who had worked with archaeological materials from Southwest Florida for the better part of five years, the thought that someday, long after I’m gone, someone will be looking at an object or collection of objects that I helped curate and be equally excited and inspired seemed to make it all worth it.

 

The Durnford Collection as it appears 117 years after its excavation. Photo by Austin Bell (July 4, 2013). © Trustees of the British Museum.

 

The point of this article, however, is not to boast about my travels or associate myself with a renowned institution like the British Museum; people visit their collections all the time. The point, rather, is to share the inspiration I felt as a professional who can sometimes take for granted the amazing things I get to work with on a daily basis. At this point in my career I am more “museum professional” than “archaeologist,” so I’m obliged to advocate for the role that museums play in preserving artifacts that archaeologists uncover. Without museums, objects like those in the Durnford Collection wouldn’t be around for new generations of hungry eyes to feast upon. What’s more, there will almost certainly be new technologies and methods of analysis for museum collections in the future, much the way that radiocarbon dating didn’t exist in 1895. This makes the role of the museum all the more important in archaeology, allowing professionals and amateurs alike the opportunity to interpret and re-interpret the meaning of material culture for centuries to come. As I now try to incorporate what I’ve learned from the British Museum into the exhibit on Marco Island, I encourage you to think about what artifact or collection of artifacts has inspired you. While it’s all just “stuff,” so often it’s the inspiration for anything from a simple idea or personal revelation to a life’s work. Little did the makers of the artifacts discovered by Durnford know that hundreds of years later, their creations would be written about in books and inspiring people from a new locale halfway around the world. So, if you find yourself lacking that personal connection to an artifact (or archaeology in general), I implore you to visit your local museum. Heck, don’t just visit it, ask for a tour of the collections. After all, museum people get excited when other people get excited about museums, so as I said before, “why not ask?”; the worst they’ll do is say “no,” but the best they’ll do is change your life!

Doing Archaeology, Digitally

This Day of Archaeology doesn’t see me out surveying or excavating, nor in a lab.  Instead, it finds me sitting at my desk at MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts, Letters, and Social Sciences Online at Michigan State University in front of my Mac Book Pro, two large Apple Cinema Displays (powered by an old, yet remarkably reliable, Mac Pro), an iPad, an iPod, an Android handset (Droid X2 if you are interested), and a Galaxy Tab 10.1.  This (extremely technological) state of affairs results from the fact that its been a long time since I’ve actually stuck a trowel in the ground.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got a great field archaeology pedegree.  I spent my elementary, highschool, and undergrad years (my father is an archaeologist as well) working on sites in the Northern Plains (mostly Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Alberta – and a little bit in Montana and North Dakota).  As a graduate student, I worked in Indiana and Illinois.  My primary area of research as a graduate student (as well as my archaeological heart), however, rested in Egypt – Predynastic Egypt to be precise.  I worked several seasons with Fred Wendorf and the Combined Prehistoric Expedition at Nabta Playa.  The bulk of my work in Egypt, however, was at Hierakonpolis, where I excavated a variety of Predynastic household sites and did research into Predynastic household economy.

As a graduate student (and even as an undergrad, to be quite honest), I found myself increasingly interested in how information, computing, and communication technology could be applied to archaeology for teaching, research, outreach, and scholarly communication.  Fast forward several years and I find myself sitting at my desk at MATRIX in front of a dizzying array of devices.  My transformation from a “traditional” archaeologist (if you will – though, to be honest, is there really such thing as a “traditional” archaeologist) to a digital archaeologist is complete.

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British Museum International Training Programme : Facebook Group

The British Museum International training Programe  (ITP) , is a six week course arranged with several UK museums, in museology, art galleries. for experts, archaeologist and all students around the world.

Most Participants come from different parts of the world From :Afghanistan, Brazil China , Egypt, Ghana, India ,Iran , Iraq, Kenya, ,Mexico, Mozambique, Nigeria, Palestine , South Africa ,Sudan, Turkey, UAE and Uganda.

However, during the ICTP 2009, a facebook group (ICTP) has been launched to keep communication between ICTP participants, BM staff, and collegeus from other participant Museums. The group gives its members the chance to share their news through posting on group wall, and uploading their photos on the group. The ICTP facebook group has an international environment, with its 84  members from more than 16 countries, sharing different cultures and languages, but all has same interests in Museum Studies, Archaeology, and history…etc. Moreover, the group celebrated all kinds of events social and professional.

The group has been developed well over the past months, and it starts to become an excellent communication link between participants and a gathering point to all members. It also started a self introduction of itself towards further participants. For the first time, the group had sent welcoming PowerPoint slides before the beginning of the programme to both ICTP  participants of 2010, and 2011 and plan to send it Annually .

The group also developed and now has an offical e-mail: BMITP@groups.facebook.com

where you can e-mail the group, and all of your comments will be automatically posted on the group wall.

We will be very happy, to see you on our group, to participate and share with us your experience in Archaeology, Museology, Galleries, and any related subject. : This is our link on facebook : https://www.facebook.com/groups/BMITP/

 

Its our pleasure to have you in our goup 🙂 Your Always welcome !!!

Regards,

Haytham Dieck

BM-ICTP facebook Administrator

Tells of space and time….

I’ve always always loved learning and reading about the ancient world. It seems to me to be full of unsolved mysteries and puzzles, tantalizing enigmas about who-done-what and what happened where. Definitely by the time I got to University, I knew I really wasn’t even interested in anything else other than the distant past. I am currently researching for my dissertation in MSc in Web Science at the University of Southampton, and I’m looking at how to represent ambiguities in the spatial and temporal elements of the ancient cities of Mesopotamia.

red pen on line drawing of Code of Hammurabi (Old Babylonian)My path to this MSc has been long and winding. During my undergrad years at Birmingham University I focused on studying Mesopotamia and the cultures of the Early Bronze Age in the Near East. I learnt to read Sumerian cuneiform, as well as various dialects of Akkadian – I’d say that Sumerian and Old Babylonian remain my favourites, and in the course of my current research I’ve got the opportunity to again engage with these elements from my academic past.

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A day in the life of a National Finds Adviser for the PAS

I work for the Portable Antiquities Scheme as the Deputy Finds Adviser for Iron Age and Roman coins and part time as a Roman Finds Adviser. It’s my job to help our national network of Finds Liaison Officers to identify and record all the tricky coins and artefacts brought in by metal detectorists to record and to emphasise their research potential. Every day working for the Scheme is different. The past couple of weeks have seen me give lectures at metal Detecting Clubs in Liverpool and the Wirral, attend a conference on Roman coins from Britain and record more than 1000 coins from new sites discovered throughout the country. This entry gives a snapshot of what I’ve been doing today.

9.15am: I arrive at work at the Department of Coins and Medals at the British Museum and spend the next half hour answering email queries from finders and Finds Liaison Officers. Answering queries is a major part of my role. Today, I’ve identified and referenced a couple of coins from the Isle of Wight, where the FLO, Frank Basford, works very hard with detectorists to record as many objects as possible. As a result, he has recorded more than 1500 Roman coins for the island which has totally changed our understanding of the Roman period there.
9.45am: I check in to the Finds Liaison Officers’ Finds Forum and leave a couple of opinions on objects posted there. One of the FLOs wants to know where he can find examples of iron Roman brooches, whilst another queries whether an unusual wire feature on the foot of a Roman brooch is a repair or part of its decoration. I make a note to flick through some Roman catalogues later to try and find parallels. I post a map of the distribution of Roman knee brooches recorded by the PAS which I’ve been working on and it provokes some interesting discussion from FLOs…
10.20am: I start putting together a provisional object and image list for a display on ‘Roman coins as religious offerings’ which will form part of a new Money Gallery at the British museum. I want to use a combination of objects from the museum’s collections and some reported through the PAS. I choose a selection of coins found in the River Thames at London Bridge, some cut and mutilated coins from a range of sites throughout the country and decide it would be a good idea to also have some artefacts too. I therefore email the curators in the Department of Prehistory and Europe to see whether they have any votive objects in their reserve collections which might be suitable. I’m hoping for a miniature object and a lead curse tablet!
1pm: Lunch and a bit of a rest!
2pm: I check up on my intern, Victoria, an MA student in Museum Studies from George Washington University. She’s spent the summer recording coins on the PAS database and scanning accompanying images and has done an amazing job, entering more than 1000 over the past month. We get a lot of help from students and volunteers and I hope they get as much out of it as we do!
2.30pm: Back to the museum display. I’ve just found out I have to write the general display text to accompany my finds by Monday. It’s only 80 words explaining the theme of my display but I think it’s going to be a bit of a challenge.
3pm: Start recording part of a large assemblage of coins from a site in Wiltshire which looks like it might be a Roman temple site. Amongst the coins are about 20 pierced with iron nails – possible evidence of a ritual practice I aim to investigate in more detail later. I add these coins to my spreadsheet of ‘mutilated coins’ recorded by the PAS and will come back to them next week when I start writing an article on ‘Cut and mutilated Roman coins recorded by the PAS’.
4pm: I start collecting together all the reference works and recording sheets that Victoria and I will need tomorrow. We’re going to a Finds Day in Sussex as part of a team of FLOs and PAS Finds Advisers to record coins and objects. Getting out and about to let people know about the Scheme is really important. We’re hoping to see some interesting finds and meet some new finders..