Hello, and welcome to the Thin End of the Wedge. The podcast where experts from around the world share new and interesting stories about life in the ancient Middle East. My name is Jon. Each episode, I talk to friends and colleagues, and get them to explain their work in a way we can all understand
Museums have always been far more than depositories for objects. They have played influential roles in the research, conservation, and interpretation of cultural heritage, helping to shape academic disciplines, and moulding public perceptions of past cultures. These roles, past, present, and future, are hotly debated.
But few people really know how museums work, who works there, or what their jobs involve. Of course there are some things that are common to any museum, but there are also many differences. Each has its own history, organisation, practices, and vision. In episode 6, we heard one perspective. In this episode, we hear another.
Our guest has a wealth of experience as a curator, and is now head of department at one of the most important museums in the world. She shares her thoughts on what it means to curate a collection of objects from the ancient Middle East, in the specific context of the Louvre.
So get yourself a cup of tea, make yourself comfortable, and let’s meet today’s guest.
Hello, and welcome to Thin End of the Wedge. Thank you for joining us.
Hello, thank you for inviting me.
Can you tell us please: who are you, and what do you do?
I am Ariane Thomas. I’m a curator at the Louvre museum, and also the head of the department of the Ancient Near Eastern Antiquities, in which I used to be a curator–Le département des antiquités orientales, at the Louvre, that is unfortunately at the time we speak still closed, due to the Covid and sanitary crisis.
Could you start by outlining what a curator at the Louvre does, please?
It’s a very large question. Perhaps one of the specificities of being a curator at the Louvre is the fact that you have many tasks and many ways to do such a job. It is mainly about taking care of the collection, so that they are conserved now and in future. And as a public service, get them known to anybody who would be interested. And even the ones who perhaps do not know much or nothing about it, but would like to know more. Of course, a curator does study. We try to develop that a lot with various partners in institutional or external scholars. So, studying the collections, publishing it, give talks, visits, get the collections well known online. And, of course, the display of the collections, both permanent and temporary display. Most of the curators, at least in the department I’m in charge of, do teach. Most of them, they do participate in excavations. I forgot all of the work that is done about acquisitions and deposits, which is really the way to cooperate also with museums in France and abroad everywhere in the world. I will just finish with mentioning the fact that curators at the Louvre are also highly involved in many cooperation projects, and especially now to help the heritage endangered.
Can you say something about the ideas around display at the Louvre?
As it is a very, very big news, I will also mention that we just put online our entire collections, meaning not only the ancient near eastern antiquities department, but the world collections of the Louvre, covering a very large spectrum from antiquity to the 19th century. So everything is now online.
Among this, maybe that is a specificity of the Louvre, we have somehow museums in the museum. And this raises <the> question about how to ensure and respect the specificity of each of those collections. I will just explain this briefly by the fact that of course, the collection of the Ancient Near Eastern Antiquities department, being mainly archaeological, displays objects that are not only masterpieces, not only essential monuments for the history, but also objects from the daily life–tools or whatever. And also, in a way, study collections, because we do have archaeological series. And that makes a huge difference with, for instance, the painting department, which really was founded in another way by the collection and the fact of choosing the pieces that you wanted to then display. This is a different collection. This is also a different approach. As we also welcome visitors, so that they can discover civilisations. And of course, then, our technique, questions of aesthetics, can be also developed. But that is not the main point. And that wouldn’t reflect the collection, as it was done through the archaeological excavations since the 19th century. We must keep in mind this specificity, and still, of course, as we do have many visitors in the Louvre, who do not visit only our department, we must keep somehow in harmony inside the whole museum.
Then speaking of display, I would also mention the fact that we are very lucky to be inside one of the most ancient, important, and beautiful buildings of Paris, the former royal palace. But this has also an impact. Because we are not in a box that we can adapt exactly as we like. We must respect this palace, this ancient monument, and it is also part of the thing that visitors do enjoy when they visit the Louvre. But of course, this does make it sometimes a bit difficult for our display. I will take another example. When we do want to have people understanding better the Sumerian culture through our collection, coming mainly from Tello, as you may know, we have an amazing collection for that. And still at the same time, it is really far from the architecture of the Parisian palace. And this palace that is full of stone, metal, glass, especially in the modern museography that was done during the Grand Louvre, may be quite different than the context in which the objects were before. Of course, in the modern box, it may not be that much easier. And that’s just something that we must take into account in our attempt to contextualise the objects. At the same time, you never get into a perfect context. That’s not the essential point. It’s just that we have a very rich place. And we must take all of those parameters.
Just to give you another example. For instance, we do display monumental reliefs from Khorsabad, an Assyrian city, as you know. And it is on display in the courtyard of the former Parisian palace, which is completely different. I mean the architecture of both the Khorsabad Court, as we display it is very, very different, of course. So when you raise your eyes above the sculpture, you will see classical architecture. Still, I think it is in this case, somehow an advantage, since it also gives the visitors and idea of the monumentality of the Assyrian palace, because more or less the height that you have corresponds better to what you could find in antiquity, in Khorsabad in this case, instead of what we would have in modern buildings, for instance.
Then there is also the specificity of the collection that is extremely diverse and rich. We are extremely lucky and honoured to have such a collection that can really present the ancient Middle East in a very complete way, even though it is an ancient collection, and of course, we can’t present everything. Still, I think it really gives a good idea of what we call the ancient Middle East. Currently, it is divided between three main fields, which correspond to three main wings: first, Mesopotamia, then Iran and the Levant, as you can find in many other museums. And this is very logical, because it does correspond to the way the discipline was built up, notably along<side> the museums, such as the Louvre or the British Museum since the 19th century. So this does reflect something that is very interesting. And it’s true in a way. At the same time, one may wonder if the display also has an impact on the way we do think <about> the field. So we are currently rethinking the way we could display our collection. And this is a question: shall we keep those divisions that are relevant on the one hand, or to question the former borders that were defined since the 19th century? And is there another way to present the Middle East? How can we get it a bit more material? Would it be useful for the field as it is now?
I think that the display is a responsibility for visitors who are not specialists, but also for the specialists. I assume that the Louvre as the British Museum, or the main collections in the world, may also help rethinking the way we do work on our specific fields. And this we do know was, and is, always more and more specialised. I think museums can help to synthesize, also to open up a bit, the very specialised fields within the field. Even though we are not conscious of it all of the time, we are all quite influenced by our own time. In this way, I think it’s quite interesting to notice that many museums are now rethinking also the way they may display their collections. So that maybe a circumstance that leads us to have this reflection, and hopefully all together, I hope.
How does research fit into the department’s activity?
We are not only curators in the department, and it’s really a collective work. Working at the Louvre does imply this gymnastic between collections, and their materiality with the essential mission to ensure their good conservation. Then the visitors, and of course, we feed all of those missions through the study and the knowledge on the collections. Even though we are quite a team, it’s not the question of doing all inside the department. And just like in many other museums, this is a public service. And we are extremely willing to welcome scholars and develop partnerships for this study. The study on the collections does probably feed and support the reflections on the collections, their display, and of course, the way we can transmit it through the display and other ways of communication to the visitors, whether they are physically here or distant. Yes, I think it’s really essential that the study is like a base, a podium, for that.
The very specific period we are going through, made it on this same time complicated and simpler. Complicated because we are often developing on materials studies. That was complicated to have the right people having an access to the collections. I of course, think of some of our research with our lab. Our main partner is of course, the Centre de recherche et de restauration des musées de France, which is within the Louvre palace; an enormous and fantastic laboratory for conservation and research examinations and analysis on the materials. For instance, we do have a very interesting programme on the bricks and especially the glazed bricks from Mesopotamia and Elam mainly. We also do work, for instance, with the laboratories that are outside of Paris, in what we call Le Plateau de Saclay on mineralised textiles.
I can’t quote all of them. It’s just to give you an idea that we try to develop user research programmes. And this probably is a very good base for rethinking the display. I can just highlight the bright activity of the whole department again, not only is the curators. The department is involved in various publications projects. Of course, among the research programmes, we also do have what we call digital humanities. And this is, again, the same process of better studying collections, better transmitting the knowledge and also develop a very interesting way to contextualise the collections, especially when we work on digital reconstructions like the one we did on Khorsabad or the ones we are currently developing for sites like Byblos.
The collection is essentially the product of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Traditionally, acquisitions have been seen as a key way to keep a museum “alive”, as it were. But for departments like yours, this raises all sorts of ethical considerations. What is the department’s position on acquisitions and the antiquities that are available for purchase these days?
The department’s collection is mainly an ancient one. Of course, again, I will take the example of the painting department. They do have, I think, the best collection in the world on French painting, for instance. They do consider wisely that acquiring wisely is not only a way, as many say, to ensure the fact that a museum is alive, but also a way to protect the heritage and what we call in France, especially, the trésors nationaux–national treasures. Let me explain. Even though the collection is amazing, you do have essential pieces of the history of art that are in private collections. And it is indeed very interesting, when it is possible, to think of acquiring it. In a way it is obvious that it can also protect the heritage.
The question is completely different, of course, for collections like the one of the ancient Near Eastern Antiquities department, because we are not working on the French heritage. And above all, we do know that the various countries we are working with are facing a terrible issue with the traffic of antiquities. Some do even speak about blood antiquities. Those countries we work with face the traffic of antiquities. And also behind the traffic, the looting of sites, and of museums. Our duty is, of course, to help as much as possible to face this enormous issue and terrible issue. I think the main question we do have is, what can we do to be useful in terms of fighting this looting? And what can we do, for instance, in terms of watching the antiquities market? And how can we then collaborate with customs, police services, and of course, the authorities.
Of course, in this context, it’s not like we do acquire as the other departments I mentioned before do. Contrary to these other departments, for instance, we didn’t require anything, neither this year nor the year before. Of course, a very ancient piece that is extremely relevant to the collection, that was an ancient part of a division that was made with a part of this collection that was at a collection. I will take an example. In the early 20th century, some private collectors did give part of their collections to the Louvre, to the Ancient Near Eastern Antiquities department, and then kept a part for themselves. This is one example of a specific case in which the question can be raised, because if we do not acquire them, they will be kept in private hands. While if we do, they will join the public collections available for everybody and being duly conserved. Those are what I would call the very rare situations in which, if possible, the department would consider the acquisition. If not, we do absolutely want to be an example in this terrible situation. And so it’s absolutely not our politics to acquire. Our mission in the field of acquisition, let’s say, is more to look at everything that is on the market, and especially the French antiquities market, because obviously, we can work directly with police and customs services to ensure this duty of watching and alerting, if we do see objects that might have been looted, or were obviously looted.
Could you say something about the Louvre’s activities in the Middle East, please?
Well, the Louvre is highly involved into a cooperation project, an international one, to help rehabilitate the Mosul Museum, whom you know suffered during the occupation of the city by daesh. And after the city was free, the Iraqi authorities asked for help to rehabilitate this destroyed museum with the heavily damaged collections in it. They asked Aliph, an international organisation created specifically to help the endangered heritage in zones of armed conflicts. Aliph is a very, let’s say, both new and already essential institution in many countries, especially Iraq, where they are involved in many projects. But that is one of their flagship projects. Because it is a very ambitious one, due to see important damages that are to be repaired.
Aliph that had been launched in the Khorsabad court soon after the terrible destructions by daesh and the way they were known all over the world through the videos they sent. In reaction to that Aliph was launched. And precisely one of the main launch conferences took place within the Louvre, in the Khorsabad court, quite symbolically. And Jean-Luc Martinez, the President Director of the Musée du Louvre, is highly involved in it. And in this, where the museum does its maximum, let’s say, to help in this situation. So that’s how the department took this very active part in this project, along<side> the Smithsonian Institution, and now the World Monuments Fund. It’s a very huge project that is strictly done along<side> the Iraqi and especially the quite extraordinary team of the Mosul museum. And should quote first its director, Zaid Ghazi Saadallah. One who works incredibly well, despite a situation that is not as good as we would all like it to be.
And of course, the sanitary crisis since 2020, didn’t help much a situation that was on, let’s say, a security point of view, not so well already. So despite all of it, and with the very precious help of the Iraqi and of course, the financial support of Aliph, we tried to do as much as possible. And now to develop the project to hopefully reopen it very soon.
To be a bit more practical, when the project started, it was first a matter of ensuring all of the methods were required, like securing the place securing the museum, repairing the roof, demining the place, so that people could work there without too much danger, ensuring you know the stability of the floor that was exploded. You probably saw some of those pictures showing the big holes inside one of the main wings of the museum, the Assyrian ones. And of course, you know, doing a complete assessment of both collections and the buildings, so that we did get and we did that complete action plan from the situation in which we found the museum until it’s completely recovery. The point is to do this hard and complicated work of restoring heavily damaged collections.
This big restoration programme began following the request of the Iraqi by training the Mosul museum team. And this training which started with luckily real meetings there, and not only here in Paris. Then in 2020, we had to adapt. And we also developed a complete online training with videos … short videos that were meant, like, tutorials like ‘how do you do this?’ thinking that we really needed to adapt to the situation in order not to be blocked and not to get any more delay. Hopefully, very, very soon we can go back to the museum and launch important rehabilitation works. Repairing the building, moving the monumental exploded pieces, at a certain time requires essentially to be on site.
You’re head of department. Who’s in the team you lead, and what are your responsibilities?
We are a team of between 25 and 30 people within the department. Most of them being extremely specialised in Ancient Near East. We do have various specialists: of course, curators for the many fields that is covered by our collection, from the Iran to Spain. I will just mention briefly what people sometimes do not know: that because of the development of the Phoenician collection, Punic collection, we also do have an interesting collection from ancient Spain.
We do have curators, we do have what we call documentalistes, who are people extremely specialised and working on the documentation on the collection. And again, some of them must be extremely thanked, because along with the curators, they really are behind the fact that we could put online this year the whole well collection to get it accessible to everybody who would be interested in it. We also do have people for drawing, making pictures of the collection. We do have conservators, registrar, archaeologists, people specifically devoted to this or this project, including the fact of working on another treasure next to our collections, like archaeological collection.
We also do have the treasure of our archives, most of them being archaeological archives, papers, of course, the field work. Also the administrative paperwork that in a way is extremely interesting for anybody interested in history. But also an enormous amount of photographic archives, both from the excavated sites related so to the collection of the department, but also larger because, of course, people making pictures used to picture a lot more than the excavations they were invited to. It started very early, as you may know that the Khorsabad excavations by Victor Place were one of the very first occasions in which we do have archaeological photographs by Gabriel Tranchand.
When are we talking about here?
It’s the 1850s. So the French excavations by Victor Place at Khorsabad were led in the 1850s. So it’s really soon after the photography was invented. And it’s among the very first ones. This is to be really precise, uh, shared with the Collège de France in which you can also see part of those very ancient photographs. But more largely, indeed, we do have all of those photographs; various types, of course, because the media was developed at that time. And so we do have calotypes, glass plaques, and other types, until the most modern ones, because we do still enrich this part of the collections that is our archives. The head of the department, in a way, is a manager. I’m in charge of ensuring that the department works well, that everything is okay in the end, and that the projects do have the means … financial and practical and human means … to go on and that they go on as they should, ensuring the conservation of the collection, ensuring the knowledge and the documentation of the collection and their accessibility, ensuring also their display–permanent and temporary. The ambition of rethinking the permanent display does imply to almost fight to get it possible.
We living at a time of change. What might the future hold at the Louvre?
That is a very interesting question, because, indeed, especially at the Louvre, we are now for one year living a total revolution. What we do not know is whether it will be provisional or definitive. When I entered the Louvre, I used to meet people that had known the Louvre before what we call the Grand Louvre. The Grand Louvre was this enormous project of renovating and enlarging the museum during the 1990s. It was officially opened in 1993. This corresponded to the enormous increase of the amount of visitors to the Louvre, not only the Louvre, of course, the Louvre being the most visited in the world. But this movement, this increase of visitors in big international museums, was not specific to the Louvre. So I used to know when I started at the Louvre people who had known the museum before that. And they were very clear in the enormous change that it had, not only in the museum, in its display, but in its … in its whole economy, because of course, this had a financial impact. But also the way you worked, of course, and again, it’s not the same thing, when you do know that the things you do, especially in the permanent display, can touch something like 10 millions.
What I wonder is how much this sanitary crisis and the changes that it certainly will have, will completely change the way museums are, and will be, visited. So of course, the amount of visitors and behind that the diversity of them. But also the fact that now, it’s really obvious, we can develop many things also online, which is a very interesting way to transmit knowledge, and to get our collections better known. But this also does raise questions about the originality of the works. You may be completely surprised when you do face the real object, because it’s different. It may even be not so beautiful than on the digital meeting you had first with it. Or it can just be incredibly smaller than what you imagined, despite the fact that we give scale. We do have this honour to have those objects that came to us through the time. And I think that there’s a balance and something to really think of between their proper existence as material objects that makes it so special to go to the museum and meet those very, very ancient objects. And of course, the fact that it doesn’t exclude all of the digital possibilities.
We mentioned the pictures before, as people did debate during the 19th century about the photography, thinking, ‘but what will happen to the reality? How do we manage?’ We also do know that not everybody can go to the museum of the Louvre. And not everybody can go to the fields from where our collections come. We are in this very specific time where it could even be possible to have our objects recontextualised as they never could be before. And at the same time, we must really keep this very, very old mission of taking care of the real remains. We also do have this mission, probably, to recall that nothing ever repeats. And that the history and especially when we speak of antiquity, must be understood with all of its differences. And that does of course mean that the modern borders do not correspond to the realities that, furthermore, in this long antiquity that we deal with, changed over time.
To finish, I think that one first thing I’d like to do for everybody and including the people working on the field, I mean, at least the students, I think that we are quite a recent field. So this is quite amazing. All of that has been discovered since the 19th century. But at the same time, we must keep quite modest and at the same time comforted in the fact that so much remains to be discovered. And this is probably something that can lead us to be more flexible in the way we do consider our fields, the classification and everything. Not that I want everything to be disturbed, but just keep as much as possible the flexibility to continue what they did since the 19th century, which really means rediscovering entire aspects of the field. And we knew many scientific revolutions.
Of course, I think this has to be done all together. And we do know that it is so hard at the time in which the field needs essentially to be protected from looting. I hope at least that we can work very closely with all of the countries, all of the colleagues that are interested and willing to, both to better know the territory. And for this, I think that works like archaeological maps or things like that are essential. But also developing as much as possible the collaborations, so that hopefully, we use the modern world in which we are and the fact we can share online so much not only knowledge, but maybe programmes, or specific things that we developed for the public, for instance. I hope we can share it. An example is the fact that of course, I hope we will share collections, but we can also share virtual tools.
How can we follow your work?
I don’t have any account. But you can follow in the old way: publications, papers or books, exhibitions, the web page of the department on the Louvre website, where we do put out everything that is new. The department, not only my activity, but the one of the whole team, is visible through these various ways. There’s not only one in which we do publish everything, we probably should think of it. But also on our YouTube channel, on the various social networks, where we do publish regularly … generally at least a few per month … to talk about our activity. And also, of course, highlight the collections and the work that is done around it.
Well, thank you very much.
Thank you. Thank you very much for inviting me again.
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