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.

PhDs and Libraries

Right, first thing on my agenda is to submit forms related to 2 of my PhD students. Paperwork, ugh. Not something we usually think of when doing archaeology!

Next, it’s off to the library to get some articles related to an article that I am writing on demonic devices. Yup, demonic devices. When I first started as an Egyptology student, I had a deep interest in that area. It has taken many years to finally be able to explore this subject. The material manifestation of religious practice, ritual and magic if you will, have always fascinated me. It sounds trite, but it is true. Working with objects that somebody else touched thousands of years ago humbles me, and makes me rethink all of the objects that surround me today, now. How will somebody view my office years from now?

office cobra Egypt archaeology

My office with replica clay cobras and other figurines

Archaeology – It’s not just about digging

I am a part-time post-graduate research student at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, and Vice Chair of the Egypt Exploration Society, a charitable organisation, which has been carrying out archaeological fieldwork and research in Egypt for the last 129 years

The Day of Archaeology 2011, happily, fell on the same date as a scheduled meeting of the EES’ Board of Trustees: an excellent reason to take a day away from my largely non-archaeological ‘day job’ and to reflect upon my productivity on the day. Consequently, the morning started with some prep work for a forthcoming lecture and article before I travelled in to the Bloomsbury offices of the EES.

The Trustees, numbering fifteen and drawn from the worlds of Egyptology, academia and business, meet six times a year in order to govern the work of the Society and to consider and ratify the recommendations of the Society’s various task groups.

Sadly, I am unable to discuss the detail or content of our considerations or, indeed the cut and thrust of our debate. I can report, however, that attendance was excellent, with Trustees travelling some distance to be there, with one joining us from Italy via Skype and that decisions were made in respect of fieldwork, research, finance, publications and future directions.

Although it was a fairly lengthy meeting, lasting from 13:30 to 17:30 with only a short break—tea but no biscuits—I was able to catch up, briefly, with a colleague, who was there to use our extensive library. I took the opportunity to make some arrangements in order to progress the Society’s ongoing Oral History Project, which records the detailed reminiscences of senior Egyptologists for use by future researchers.

Directly following the meeting, there were some much-needed drinks in ‘The Duke of York’, the Society’s closest watering-hole and, as might be expected, the talking continued. In fact, without the constraints of an agenda and a ticking clock, there was an even greater opportunity to discuss some interesting and exciting proposals for the future both as regards the Society and in the wider Egyptological milieu.

By 19:30, dinner in Soho awaited and I headed off into the evening sunlight, satisfied, although there was neither sand in my shoes nor dust under my nails, that I had made a small but real contribution to the academic progress and public understanding of the archaeology of Egypt: a day well spent.

Further details of the history, facilities, and ongoing work of the Egypt Exploration Society can be found at:

John J Johnston

Engaging with kids, and tea with the vicar!

Well, I’ve finally had chance to breathe after a hectic morning…

I run a small company (Archaeology for Schools Ltd) which essentially teaches children from Key Stages 2 onwards, the basic principles of archaeology in a fun and engaging way. We usually tap into their current history topic, and so we jump between Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Viking and Egyptian archaeology. As well as this, I am currently exploring a number of different ways of getting young people more interested and involved in their local heritage, as well as writing a few academic pieces!

This morning was an 8am start in Chester, getting some photographs for a new project I am involved in (top secret!) followed by a meeting with the Vicar of St. Johns, Chester who incidentally has a degree in Egyptology and has dug a number of Ramesside period sites in Egypt (not your normal man of the cloth!). Our meeting was loosely about helping St Johns to engage with more schools. It’s one of the most stunning and unusual churches in the UK, but seems to get easily overshadowed as it sits beside Chester’s Roman amphitheatre. The real bee I have in my bonnet at present, is that the public’s perception of archaeology is all about excavation, which is widely inaccessible to most. Fieldwalking, landscape archaeology, records offices, maps and old buildings have as much to reveal about the past as excavation, and are all widely available and largely free. I’m amazed by how many people I know who purport to be interested in history or archaeology,  but have not took the time to walk around their local parish church…..rant over!!

School holidays are with us now, so I am using the time to do some of my own landscape fieldwork, having got hold of some nice LIDAR data-sets to play with. I’m also spending an hour today writing a proposal and a quote for a potential new customer.