Museum of Classical Archaeology

Through a Glass Darkly?

pompAs the curator of a small museum, I’m on the front-line of the interface between objects and people. The Museum of Classical Archaeology is a university collection based in the Faculty of Classics at Cambridge. Although we have a fine collection of sherds and epigraphic squeezes, the stars of the show in our gallery are the 450 plaster casts of Greek and Roman sculpture on display. Our objects, then, weren’t dug up in a far-off field or found in a rescue trench – no, most were made especially for us and our collection. Still, they’re far from just fakes or poor shadows of their originals. Rather, they are historical objects in their own right: the oldest are well over 250 years old and began their lives in the private houses of wealthy aristocrats. Casts were used for the dissemination of new discoveries long before lavishly illustrated books, dig reports and press releases became the norm. So, while our objects are not original, their histories are tangled up in centuries of archaeological and art historical research and teaching.

I spend the morning dealing with emails and social media, making posters and producing some new display boards for a temporary exhibition – all while sitting on the front desk, so at the same time I’m engaging with visitors and dealing with questions. We recently took some objects out of the museum to a local cinema for the British Museum’s Pompeii Live event, where over 80 people got their hands on our objects at the cinema (don’t worry, we made them wear gloves!). Now, we’ve put them together in a temporary Pompeii-inspired display called Pompeiana. The stand-out piece is a bit of painted Pompeian masonry, which was too delicate to take to the cinema. Ultimately, the display will snake backwards around the gallery, picking out pieces of sculpture which were originally displayed in private Roman houses and gardens – but only when I’ve finished writing the content…

Today, I put together a rather lovely piece on the relationship between our two casts of Dancing Girls from the Villa and their original doppelgangers – it’s important that we engage directly with the rather unusual nature of our collection as casts and copies, rather than try to brush it under the carpet. Every cast tells two stories – one ancient, one modern. One of those stories, it turns out, is hiding in the storeroom. I discover we have a (cast of a) head of Dionysos from the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum languishing on a bottom shelf; actually, he turns out to be even more unusual because he’s made not out of plaster of Paris but of bronze. How unexpected! He’s beautiful, but heavy. I begin to make a cunning plan to liberate him and install him on the shop-floor.

P1000603At lunchtime, the Museum’s Education and Outreach Coordinator, Jennie Thornber, opens up a bulging envelope full of letters written by a group of children, thanking her for letting them handle some real Roman objects. We’ve both only been in post for less than four months, so reading these is a real joy. One child has drawn a version of a Hellenistic sculpture of a baby squashing a duck: the duck says, ‘Don’t squash me!’. We love it!

As the afternoon starts, visitors begin to arrive asking about the Curator’s Tour. We don’t really know what to expect; we’ve advertised this tour as part of the family programming and thought we might not have any takers. We needn’t have worried: we have 18 arrivals, ranging in age from about 2 years old to adult. I’m a little overwhelmed, but I have to think on my feet to make this work for all the different age groups. It’s certainly a challenge, not least since the Museum has gotten very hot in the sunshine. We put on iced water for our guests and end the tour by lying down in front of the huge Farnese Hercules, to see what he would look like if he were on a high base. Chatting to the families, it becomes clear we’re onto something here – there’s obviously a real appetite for family events which don’t assume kids need to be placated with crafts. Still, I’ll definitely think harder before jumping straight into next week’s tour!

My day ends where it began: checking emails, laminating posters and working on the Pompeiana display. Most of my days are as varied as this one, with my fingers in various different pies. Usually, I split my time between my office and the front desk, and it is a pleasure to spend so much time with visitors. Then the electric door pings shut and I’m left alone with my emails and the casts.