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.
Today we enter a new area: the museum world. There’s a lot to discuss about museums. We can’t do it all in one go, of course. So we’ll come back in later episodes to pick up on many of the topics raised here. Our guest on this episode is a highly experienced and effective curator who’s worked at several of the world’s most famous museums. He offers the perspective of one particular curator with a focus on his work at one particular museum. In doing so, he introduces us to some of the things that curators think about.
Our guest is in a position that most curators dream of. He’s not only arranging a temporary exhibition, but also has the opportunity to rethink the so called “permanent” gallery displays. He’s not afraid of confronting uncomfortable truths. In this episode, he reflects on how museums might better display the ancient Middle East. What do we display? How do we do it? And who do we do it for? 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.
Thank you very much. Delighted to be invited.
Can you tell us please: Who are you, and what do you do?
I’m Paul Collins. I’m the Jalah Hearn curator for Ancient Near East at the Ashmolean Museum, which is a department of the University of Oxford.
Now you’re going to talk about new ways of displaying the ancient Middle East. But could you start by telling us: how have displays traditionally been organized? And why is it been done like that?
Every museum has a different way of displaying their objects. I think historically that’s because they all have different types of objects. But historically, archaeology particularly has been arranged chronologically or by type. So there’s a tradition of gathering together lots of the same things, laying them out on shelves, with the idea that you can see change through times by simply marching through the gallery.
What are the strengths and weaknesses of that way of displaying material?
The idea of seeing lots of objects together actually can be very exciting, the idea in Victorian museums of seeing lots of butterflies, and recognizing change in diversity within that. So for a specialist, and perhaps even a newcomer to the material, the idea of variety can be very, very interesting. But it does mean that you can often not see the wood for the trees. I think displays have traditionally been really for just showing the range of the collection. And some of the bigger museums which have tens of thousands of objects. It’s an impressive way of demonstrating the collection. And so in a way, it’s sort of overwhelming the viewer with diversity and variety. And as a result, I think if you’re interested in individual stories, the stories of individual objects or the people behind them, it’s sometimes very difficult to find those people.
So would you say then it’s a question of offering visitors too many choices. Here’s an enormous amount of material, you can navigate through it in many different ways. But rather than selecting one or two coherent stories, it becomes confusing because of too much choice.
There can be too much choice. Museums have been grappling with this problem for decades. And really, since the Second World War, there’s been a move in many museums to reduce the number of objects on display, simply because there was too much for people to take in. And so the idea of study rooms emerged, where the specialists could go and look at specific objects. While visitors to the gallery were left with the best examples, as curators determined. And very often that was shaped by what was thought to be aesthetically pleasing. And so as a result, the number of objects was reduced, but not necessarily access to the stories behind them.
There’s a particular interest in the aesthetic appeal of individual objects from, I guess, an art historical perspective.
Yes, it’s very popular in some museums to think about the object in terms of how it looks, its aesthetic appeal. And of course, that’s very often judged against western traditions of what good art is. That then shapes the display in a particular way. In my own institution, the Ashmolean, there is to some extent a tension between art and archaeology. It presents itself as an institution of both. And the art department is very much about the western concept of paintings and sculpture. Whereas archaeology is largely very archaeological. We don’t have many objects, which would fit neatly into beautiful aesthetic things. And so as a result, we have galleries full of ceramics from the ancient Near East, alongside paintings and sculptures from the classical and later worlds. The two techniques of display don’t necessarily fit equally in both sections.
The more aesthetic and art historical approaches are perfectly valid. There are lots of people who are inspired by the material. And that’s a reasonable way to engage with it, isn’t it?
Absolutely. That is one route into objects. So we shouldn’t dismiss it completely. One doesn’t negate the other. But I think it’s about how those objects that might be isolated and viewed on its own for sort of contemplative appreciation, then fit into that broader picture of what the rest of the archaeological material can tell us about the ancient societies and the peoples and lives that they represent.
The visual characteristics of an object are important even if you’re not approaching the material through an aesthetic perspective. For a visitor who’s browsing through the gallery, say, you need something to make them stop; something to start the engagement with the object. You need to pick carefully, don’t you, and sometimes you need to give it a little bit of help.
I think objects do often need help and need contextualising, need explaining. One of the challenges, I think, in a museum display is finding the right ways of doing that. I’m very interested in Assyrian reliefs, and the imagery and messages and meaning of those extraordinary carved sculptures. But a viewer coming to them for the first time wouldn’t understand all those various layers that are represented in a single image. So finding means to enable a viewer to understand some of those, perhaps appreciating that the messages are very different than a painting in the art gallery next door. You can do that with projection, with sound, with traditional labelling, with graphics. There are a whole variety of different means of enabling a viewer to get something out of an object.
That’s the kind of display technique, the kind of interpretive assistance, that you usually get in a temporary exhibition. But you tend not to see it so often in a permanent gallery. Can you talk about the differences between those two types of display and why they come about?
Permanent displays very often attempt to be somewhat comprehensive. They want to show the range of a museum’s collection, and give a sense of variety, but also change through time. The idea being that you can come back to that space and explore a different part of it on a different occasion. Temporary exhibitions, however, of course, are intended to explore a particular issue in much more depth, and an opportunity to bring in objects from outside of the traditional collections, and to supplement and expand and develop on that story. Inevitably, therefore, they are much more expensive. You have to raise funds to enable these short term loans, create a short term design within a particular space, and then hope to recoup some of that by issuing tickets and merchandising. Now none of that is thought about for permanent galleries. If there’s money to enable a refurbishment, then you think you’re very lucky. You do it and then you could expect to wait at least a decade before you have another go. And that means permanent galleries can very quickly look rather old fashioned, both in terms of their interpretation and design, but also in terms of the information the ideas about the objects actually on display.
Can you say a little bit more about museum funding, and particularly the role of sponsorships and how that affects museum display?
Well, museums, of course have very often development departments or are certainly seeking sponsorship for all their activities. And temporary exhibitions is very often one of the most important projects that people are seeking funding for. They’re almost certainly the most expensive things a museum will do every year. And as a result, much of the work for development teams are around finding sponsors for that. This means that other parts of the museum, perhaps don’t get the sort of support that they actually need to be kept up to date or refreshed or made relevant. Sponsorship, of course, just targeted at temporary exhibitions can be problematic. We’re talking about seeking money from individuals to tell a particular story. Very often, one would like to see some of that money poured into other parts of the museum and other activities.
In temporary exhibitions, very often objects are made to look striking. It can be quite an emotional experience. You go into a special dark space, and you see objects picked out in carefully focused light, with lots of interpretive support. Even the plainest-looking object can trigger an instinctive “wow” reaction. Then you come out into the permanent galleries, and you tend to have a different experience. Could you say something about the reasons behind that?
It is, to some extent, down to design. And what you can do in a temporary display is experiment with different ways of light, of spacing, even of sound and projection, which is not traditionally done in permanent displays, which are put up and then become pretty much fixed and fossilized for the next 10 years until new funding is achieved. So all the experimentation around design and interpretation and the attractiveness of the narratives you want to tell is devoted to the temporary exhibitions. And I think that’s a missed opportunity. And I really think that permanent galleries are going to be the spaces which actually attract more people over a year than a temporary exhibition would. So investing time and energy into flexible spaces in the permanent collections means that you can make adjustments throughout the year, which to some extent, then do much the same things as you are hoping to achieve in a temporary display.
This is the model that Glasgow has been aiming for, isn’t it?
Yes, there’s a number of museums that have been exploring what we might describe as a flexible Museum. Glasgow Kelvingrove Museum have been leading the way and thinking about the entire museum as a flexible space, which can adapt to changing needs, changing ideas, and be much more relevant, much more reactive and responsive to current events. But that takes a great shift in the way in which museums think about how things are done, from the top down. So you need to have processes in place, as well as changes in the way in which museums are thinking about raising funds for activities to enable it to happen. And the crucial thing, really, I think, for rethinking the way in which museums operate is time; time to allow staff to actually engage with the issues and then come up with solutions that are flexible, and responsive.
One of the most noticeable things about temporary exhibitions is that they identify a topic that will be of special interest to visitors. But that subject isn’t always highlighted in the permanent displays, even after the exhibition. So for the exhibition, you do lots of research, you come up with all sorts of interesting new ideas, information resources. That doesn’t always feed into the permanent displays.
This is exactly the problem that I think needs to be addressed in museums. Lots of exciting work going on in temporary displays, innovative both in terms of display and interpretation. But also, of course, in terms of knowledge production, in how we understand the objects that have been put on display and how they’re being transformed in terms of scholarly opinion. But, of course, you need funds and time to develop the permanent galleries to respond to all that great creativity and that’s where I think permanent galleries need to be much more flexible. That means finding ways in which those changes can be done relatively simply and relatively cheaply. At the Ashmolean, we’re beginning to experiment with the idea of magnetic labels. For example, in the current display labels are very fixed, attached to pieces in long runs either across the middle of the case or vertically and horizontally in the cases, and you have to remove the entire run of labels, have them reprinted and change the relevant bits if you want to make any changes at all. Meanwhile, the objects themselves are fixed in the gallery on permanent mounts screwed into the back of the case. So what we want to try and do is see whether in as many places as possible, we can use magnetic mounts, both for the objects and for the labels. And in an institution like the Ashmolean, where we use objects very regularly for teaching–so they come off display to be used in study rooms with students–or, of course, more regularly, they’re going on loan to some other institution to a temporary exhibition, then with magnetic mounts, they can be removed. They don’t disrupt the aesthetics of the case, and can even be replaced by other objects very cheaply, and easily; the same, too, with the labels that accompany them. That comes with issues around shadow and lighting. But I think it offers a level of flexibility, which isn’t there at the moment.
That’s brilliant. And it’s something that many people perhaps don’t realise: making changes to gallery displays can be incredibly expensive, can’t it? So the flexibility to make changes offers significant advantages.
I think so, and increasingly at a time when we’re looking beyond the confines of the museum for ideas and responses, the idea of co-curating displays–this most elaborate form of trying to make change in the galleries. But simply responding to visitor inquiries or indeed the latest scholarly find, new excavation, new thinking about an object, we can very easily replace a label with a magnetic mount rather than reshaping an entire display, which does cost thousands of pounds.
You touched on the use of sound in museum displays. How do you integrate senses other than sight?
Museums are trying very different approaches, depending on their collections, and depending on, really, their audiences. Traditionally, sight has been seen as the most important of the senses. This emerged in the 19th century, when things like touch began to be equated to “the dirty hands of the working classes”. And of course, you need to keep things at a distance from hands that are also likely to be thieving. So glass and barriers emerged in museums to protect objects. And philosophically, sight was imagined as the superior sense to all the others. And of course, if you were looking at art, then that was clearly the best way to do it. But now, of course, we recognize that all the senses are essential for a better understanding of the world around us. And they’re all equal in that, and museums have been attempting to find ways to engage those other senses, and some very successful work has been done. Touch is being introduced in museums. 3D objects, for example, easily made 3D scanned, is one route to enabling people to get a sense of the texture of objects such as the technology these days. It’s possible to even get a sense of the original texture of an object. But you can also, of course, have the materials that objects are made from that are available for people to touch. And people get great fulfilment simply from an initial engagement with the physicality of an object or the material. And that enables the brain to explain what the object behind the glass might actually feel like. So you don’t actually have to have the ancient object on display to enable that sense of touch to be achieved. Other suggestions, of course, include actually putting ancient material on display. The tens of thousands of ceramic shards that have been excavated from excavations around the world are sitting in bags in museums. A few might be put on display, changed regularly, as touch inevitably wears them out. So there are a variety of different experiments with touch. But sound: audio guides, a very traditional way of engaging with materials and stories. But also, of course, wonderful technology that’s been explored a number of museums such as sound cones, where you can walk in and out of spaces, which contain the sound and which aren’t going to disturb other visitors to the same space. So technology is really moving forward, in terms of some of these ideas.
There is sometimes a little reluctance to cater to senses other than sight for a number of reasons. Sometimes, just because of the logistics: it’s a piece of equipment that can break and will need to be replaced. Or maybe it’s felt that something is too distracting or invasive. If you have too much going on, it could be quite uncomfortable. So it’s a real balance, isn’t it, trying to offer visitors as many opportunities as possible, without inadvertently excluding some others in the process?
Yes, it’s always a balance. And it’s that careful analysis of the space, thinking about how many visitors can come into it. What’s the key message you want to get across from that particular activity? Touch at the moment, of course, is terribly problematic in museums. So all our interactives have messages saying “Do not touch”. Digital is very often viewed as an answer to so many of these questions. But again, technology breaks easily. And there’s nothing worse to my mind than walking into a gallery and seeing labels across an interactive saying, “out of action”.
Do you think the solution to this is going to be to shift where that technology comes from. So rather than being a fixed installation in the gallery, it’s something the visitor can bring with them on their phone say?
I think this is another balance that needs to be carefully thought about. Certainly that’s a route in for many people. So many people these days have their smartphones, which would enable that sort of technology, which enable them of course, to interrogate objects in much greater detail. Layers of information can be provided, which the holder of the phone is able to, as it were, make a choice about how much information they want. But that takes you away from the object. If you’re busy looking at your phone, and interrogating lots of texts, and lots of images and maps, you might actually not see the object, oddly enough. So it is getting that balance, right. Whether the object is the thing that launches you into another world, or you want to keep the person engaged with that object, so that the whole display can help reveal that world to the visitor. And that’s something that’s particularly interesting to me at the moment, because I’m thinking about how we redisplay the ancient Near East gallery in the Ashmolean Museum, by using objects in groups that the visitor can then approach and build their narratives from. So individual labels will tell you something about the object next to the object, not some distance away in the bottom of the case, or in another part of the gallery, but next to the object. And then as a mosaic, or perhaps better a constellation of objects, each of the labels and the objects build up into paragraphs of information, which in turn build up into chapters in each case. And you can approach where you begin that story at any point. You can look at any number of objects, but because they connect to each other, they will provide an insight into the world that we’re trying to engage the visitor with. And to my mind, these objects are about opening up little windows into these ancient worlds, snapshots of distant worlds that hopefully a modern viewer can begin to appreciate.
One of the problems is terminology. What do you call the part of the world we’re talking about?
Huge debates, including in the Ashmolean, because we were thinking, “what would we call this new gallery we’re about to start refurbishing?” It’s currently called “The ancient Near East gallery”. And we consulted visitors and had a series of workshops. And for most of the attendees, this was a meaningless term: near to what? Where is the East? In relation to what? And then clearly the sense of a eurocentric approach to this part of the world. These debates, of course, are going on all the time in scholarship as well. And so if you look at museums with ancient Near Eastern collections, they will have different names for their different departments. And at the moment, I think the favoured terminology is “ancient Middle East”. It has a resonance with people who are thinking about the modern world, so they have a sense of where they are in the world. It’s still, however, of course, eurocentric: it’s still east from us. And actually, “Western Asia” is a more accurate term geographically. But it’s not a term that’s meaningful to the general public, as far as we can tell by testing.
You’ve been creating this new display, Owning the Past: from Mesopotamia to Iraq. Could you say something about that?
This is a temporary exhibition, which will run for about four or five months. And the idea was to explore how the country of Iraq was established as a result of the First World War. And because this is a temporary display that will be shown at the Ashmolean, we wanted to show how graduates and scholars at the University of Oxford were particularly instrumental in this story. That story would be told through the lens of heritage and archaeology are individuals like Gertrude Bell and T.E. Lawrence and David Hogarth, who were all Oxford graduates, or employees, had an idea of what the ancient Middle East meant as a source of western civilization. As a result, they saw archaeology and the material products of archaeology, the material remains of the past, as ways of demonstrating that connection. And so the story we will tell is how people like that went to the Middle East. And as a result of the First World War, were given the opportunity to acquire vast amounts of ancient objects from excavations. The big excavations at Ur and Kish, particularly Kish, as far as the Ashmolean is concerned, which brought thousands of objects back to the UK, and enabled them to construct an idea of Mesopotamia, and ultimately a new nation of Iraq. So it’s that narrative we wants to explore with people from Oxford, with a Middle East background, people originally from the Middle East, part of the diaspora now living in Oxford. We wanted to see what their responses were to the narrative. Few of the people who wanted to take part in these workshops and conversations, had actually visited the Ashmolean before. They saw nothing there that was relevant to their identity, their sense of heritage. And indeed, the conversations really demonstrate how heritage is much, much more than just the physical object, let alone the ancient physical object, and raise lots of really interesting questions about what a museum display could and should be doing, and whose voices should be present in order to tell those stories.
You mentioned earlier that temporary displays were a way of trying new things, and that in the ideal curatorial world, the results of temporary displays would feed into the permanent displays. So how do you see the results of this temporary exhibition leading onto what you’re doing with your redisplay of the permanent galleries?
We hope we’ve been joined up in our thinking, because the temporary exhibition is really very much running in parallel with the development of the permanent displays. And we’ve done a range of other projects as well, which has explored people’s voices and attitudes to this material. And so we want to make all the conclusions or at least some of the ideas that come out of these temporary projects, very much apparent in the permanent displays. So for example, we will have a dedicated case in the permanent gallery, which explores this story of how the objects came to the Ashmolean. Beginning in the 19th century, but really as a result of the British occupation, and then mandate authority control over what would become Iraq at the end of the First World War. That was the origins of the collections in the Ashmolean. So we will tell that story in the gallery. The challenge always is not to confuse the visitor between recent events and the ancient world. So we’ll keep those two separate, and we hope the design will achieve that. But any visitor to the permanent gallery will, we hope, understand why they’re only looking at certain parts of the collection in terms of where they come from. So we have strengths in Iraq and in Jericho, but there are inevitably large gaps. So that will help, we hope, to explain that. We will also have a space in the permanent gallery for responses, co-curated work, effectively a case which will be empty that we can fill, and the first thing we will put into that case will be a reduced version of Owning the Past. So all those voices will be part of a continuing, albeit temporary, display within the permanent gallery itself.
Can you tell us a bit more about the philosophy of the new displays: what do you want them to do? And how are you bringing that about?
The idea is very much to focus in on the idea of humanity, human stories, each of the sections in the gallery will start with an image of a human. And we want people to engage with this collection as material that has been made by humans, for humans, for particular reasons, so that they’re not removed into some distant, either imaginary or difficult to imagine world, but real living societies that were facing the same sort of challenges that we face today. And therefore, bring objects together to tell particular stories around the idea of what it was like to be human at particular times. We’ll offer an idea of movement through time. So starting with the early farming villages of the Middle East, and then moving through to the great empires of the Middle East in the first millennium BC. But at each point, the focus will be around specific moments and plots of the Middle East, where the objects we have in the Ashmolean can illuminate those worlds most brilliantly.
So rather than being a general introductory history book, you’re focusing on specific case studies, as it were?
Yes, what we didn’t want to do was to try and be comprehensive. The idea of telling a story from 10,000 BC to the end of the Persian Empire, 330 BC. We couldn’t do it, because we don’t have material that would enable that. So the only way to attempt it would be to try and fill in the gaps with one or two objects that we either borrow or expand around particular examples that might be in the collection. Instead, we want to focus in on the strengths of the collection, so that specific periods of time can be made meaningful and relevant to a visitor today.
One of your priorities when choosing objects to go into the new displays, is that you’re focusing on material that comes from scientific excavations in the wider general museum context, that perhaps invites suggestions that you’re trying to conceal the origins of the collections, and the looting that took place in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Well, the focus is certainly in telling stories around excavated material, because that provides us with the context, the longer dating, than we would have through non-provenanced material that’s been bought on the market and so on. But there will certainly be examples of objects which we can say were plundered or purchased on the market, as part of the narrative. It will be absolutely apparent in terms of telling the story of how the collection came to the Ashmolean. Much of it was excavated, but certainly large amounts of the collection. Take, for example, the Luristan bronzes from Iran. A big collection came to the museum in the 1960s, which is part of this longer story of plundering Luristan from the 1930s onwards. So that is a story we want to highlight; this extraordinary collection, yet coming out of this rather problematic context. Examples of that will be found throughout the gallery.
One of the other things you’re doing in this display is you’re not separating out the different geographic and cultural divisions that you would traditionally have found in a museum display. And potentially that could lead the visitor to imagine that the entire ancient Middle East was a homogeneous mass.
Yes, the traditional divisions, of course, are problematic in their own right. If one has a case devoted to Mesopotamia, that isolates them completely from Iran, or the Levant, which, clearly, they were very much part of in terms of interaction. And so the displays will not focus in on specific modern cultural designations, but rather look at geographical areas. So again, driven to some extent by the strength of the collection, the early farming communities where we have examples from a number of sites from Palestine through Syria into Iran, we will be able to tell a story of interconnected networks of communities sharing ideas, but with localized differences. Whereas when we come to the third millennium BC, we have a strong collection from this site of Kish in southern Iraq. And we will tell a very southern Mesopotamian story of city states, and the Sumerian and Akkadian cultures of that region. So not denying that there are regional differences, but also indicating the fact that these are not constrained by modern political borders. That ideas moved and spread, and networks of people moved across the region.
When do you think we’ll be able to see the new displays?
If all goes to plan, we should have the gallery open in May 2021.
And when does the temporary exhibition, Owning the Past open?
Owning the Past opens on the 12th of December, and then will run for four to five months.
Given the current situation, will that be open for a longer period? Or will there be a virtual version?
Yes, it’s very much hoped that there’ll be multiple ways of accessing it. We recognise that few people are going to be able to actually see it physically. I mean, the museum is accessible, but by ticket only in limited numbers. So we will be certainly looking for other ways to enable people to see this show. It is free. It’s part of the standard museum entry. And it is dual language, it is in both English and Arabic. And we want to make sure that that is available through social media, but also perhaps through a dedicated film, so that our colleagues and friends in Iraq and other areas of the Middle East can also appreciate what we’re trying to do here.
That leads us very nicely on to my next question. There are many aspects to your role. One of the things you’ve been doing is skill sharing with Iraqi colleagues. Can you tell us about that?
It’s a number of different avenues, in a way. I’ve been lucky to go to Iraq on a number of occasions. This is partly through the British Institute for the Study of Iraq, where we’ve been engaging with the development of a new museum in Basra in southern Iraq. And working closely with colleagues. They’re thinking about what museums could do, lead very much from the Iraqi side, I have to say. I mean, this is about skill sharing in both directions. I’ve learned a tremendous amount from this experience, which I hope will also be reflected in the new gallery in the Ashmolean. And I’ve also been working as part of a team on the so called Nahrein Network project. This is a research project run out of UCL led by Professor Eleanor Robson, government funded through the AHRC. And this has enabled us to support Iraqi researchers actually undertake their own research on their own history. It’s not something that’s actually happened very much over the past, well, half century or more. And so all the expertise that actually exists in Iraq, is being offered opportunities to develop their voices, open up opportunities so they can reengage with the scholarly community, beyond Iraq and contribute what they have to offer. This has been a really exciting and to my mind, very worthwhile experience, because it is they who are teaching us, rather than the expectation that it’s the west that goes with all the answers.
How can we keep up with your work?
Well, we have a blog on the Ashmolean website called Ashmolean for All. So the sort of work I’ve been doing in the Near East gallery as part of a larger strategy around thinking about inclusion and diversity across the museum. There are a number of stories told there. The Nahrein Network has its own website. All the projects that are being run out of that larger research project are available to read about there. And the final website everyone should look at is the British Institute for the Study of Iraq or BISI, where then you will read about the sorts of projects and engagement with Iraq that’s going on at the present.
And we can also keep track of you, can’t we? You do have a Twitter account.
This is true. I do have a Twitter account. So I will be increasingly adding to the Twitter accounts as these projects come to fruition.
Well, thank you very much indeed.
Thank you very much.
I’d also like to thank our patrons: Tyler Russell, Enrique Jimenez, Haider al-Rekabi, Jana Matuszak, Nancy Highcock, Jay C, and Rune Rattenborg. I really appreciate your support, it makes a big difference.
And thank you for listening to Thin End of the Wedge. If you enjoy what we do, please consider supporting us via Patreon: that’s patreon.com/wedgepod. Even a couple of pounds a month helps keep the podcast going and brings us closer to the point where we can make proper translations into Middle Eastern languages. You can also support us in other ways: simply subscribe to the podcast; leave us a five star review on iTunes or your podcatcher of choice; recommend us to your friends; follow us on Twitter at wedge_pod. If you want the latest podcast news, you can sign up for our newsletter. You can find all the links in the show notes and on our website at wedgepod.org. Thanks, and I hope you’ll join us next time.