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This is an exciting exhibition. Much of the material had never been on display before and it was great to see such a major display in a university museum (although it is easy to imagine why the Greek government might not want to collaborate with the major nationals in this country). In fact it was a generally well balanced exhibition, with stunning gold and silver, beautiful craftsmanship and plenty of actual archaeological interest. If you are interested enough in the ancient world to be reading this blog, go.

There was also some great visual display that I’d love to show you, but I wasn’t allowed to take photos (now is not the time for that rant). I liked the arrangement of the funeral pyres in the first gallery in low, well-lit cases. The fragments looked scattered at first glance, but groupings by kind of object emerged at a closer look. It was a nice stimulus to imagine the complete pyre and the blaze of it set alight, without interrupting the calm of the gallery.

The focus on a single royal family was somewhat inevitable, given the nature of the sites the exhibition was drawing from. And if that title doesn’t lead you to expect an exhibition focused on great men, I really don’t know what would. The sense of continuity and change this gave meant that the exhibition had a strong story that gave depth to the usual focus on Alexander in discussions of Macedon. Like centuries of prequel.

The exhibition began with a quote from Robin Lane Fox that said

The Macedonians lived under the same political system for some five hundred years. Nowadays we admire the ancient Greeks for their invention of democracy but even among the Athenians it lasted much less long. Macedon’s system of government was monarchy, the most stable form of government in Greek history.

The essay this comes from goes on to ask some interesting questions, but put starkly on a wall at the beginning of an exhibition, this sounded uncomfortably close to the 19th century historians who used Macedon as a contrast with what they saw as the dangers of democracy. I’m sure this is unintentional, but it felt unfortunate. After all, a stable autocracy is worse than any other form of government for those it oppresses.

The same sense of continuity that I enjoyed overall meant that the exhibition skimmed over some of the juicier bits of Macedonian history. Dramatic moments like the murder of Phillip II were played down. Similarly (and I know I always say this) I would have liked a bit more complexity. By coincidence, I rolled into Oxford minutes after I finished the chapter on Vergina in The Nation and its Ruins by Yannis Hamilakis. This gives some fascinating context on why this material is politically important in establishing the Macedonians as part of Greek heritage (despite obvious rival claims from the Republic of Macedonia). It also discussed some of the uncertainties of the archaeological record which got overlooked like the uncertainties over naming tombs’ occupants and even over the identification of modern Vergina with ancient Aegae. Uncertainty definitely couldn’t undermine the visual impact of the material, and it might have been a braver choice.  I’m not sure whether these questions would necessarily have added much to the exhibition, but they might have helped visitors reflect on why we are so interested in the names we can read in history books.

That said, I was pretty excited to see so many quotations from ancient sources in the exhibition. There was everything from throwaway phrases by Euripides and Homer through to a large chunk of one of Alexander’s speeches in Arrian. My thesis is all about how museums use ancient texts to interpret their material, so it is always interesting to see it in action. There was a sense of the ancients describing themselves in their own words, although it would have been nice to acknowledge that many of the quotes were written long after or far away from their subject matter. At its best, quoting ancient authors gave context in a way that felt vivid and concise. But in places using archaeology to illustrate texts seemed to undermine the exhibition’s claim that archaeology can deepen and extend our understanding of history.

That said, it was the only exhibition I’ve been to recently that included video of actual archaeology taking place: dirt, wheelbarrows, the lot. It was visually arresting, intellectually stimulating and well worth the dreaded X5 bus journey.

Last week I had the strangest experience. I went to the M&Ms world in Leicester Square. It was three whole floors of sweet shop. Although, it mostly sold not chocolate but M&Mrobilia. You could buy the Norwegian national flag picked out in M&Ms or a travel pet water bottle decorated with the colourful sweets. Anyone would be impressed. As someone who studies objects for a living, I found it a little overwhelming*.

I shudder to think what archaeologists would think if they discovered its ruin in thousands of years. But it’s great to be reminded of the fact that not all objects can be fully explained by members of the society that made them. If I can’t explain why the green M&M is the sexy one, or why it is on this shot glass shaped like a tiny beer tankard maybe ancient Athenians might have had similar trouble explaining wine cups with phallos birds on. We should certainly bear the possibility in mind.

I found it particularly fascinating how the shop used techniques you would associate with a museum. There were displays you weren’t allowed to touch, a time line and even a periodic table. Foucault fans would be pleased to know that there was an area at the top of the store with viewing screens that you could use to spy on your fellow customers.

It would be easy to say that the shop was using the trappings of other tourist attractions to sucker people in to spend their money. There may well have been an element of that but, looking around, most people were fully aware of how daft it all was. The fun was in the daft, camp, over-the-top nature of the experience. The museological trappings were part of this pastiche. They were a reminder of how much the modern experience of shopping shares with museum visiting: looking at objects, exercising taste, people-watching etc. Museums may be better for all sorts of reasons, but the fact that museums claim superiority makes them ripe for mocking by even the oddest of institutions.

*My companions rushed me straight to the National Gallery afterwards, and I’m fine now.

The short answer is no.

Lots of people come here trying to find the answer to that question. This blog is now the number 1 search hit for “Bembridge Scholars official web site”. I think this is probably a sign that I should go on the record: I’m not them, and I’m pretty sure they don’t exist. I’ve written about why I chose the name here.

It should come as a surprise to noone that The Mummy and the films that follow it aren’t an entirely accurate portrayal of archaeology. The walking dead, curses and biblical plagues should be a hint. I find it fascinating that people care so much about whether the university featured in it exists, given the outlandish things that happen in these movies.

Everyone likes having a go at swashbuckling screen archaeologists. Generally the only thing that real archaeology today has in common with films is the number of insects you encounter.

Noone has ever found a mummy’s curse, but the history of archaeology is full of incidents you wouldn’t believe if you saw them on screen. A strong-man turned archaeologist is chased away from an obelisk by armed thugs. A bookish chap who spends his lunch hour translating inscriptions gets so excited by a discovery that he takes his clothes off.

The Bembridge Scholars aren’t real, but sometimes I think they may as well be. This is a place for me to think about the weirdness and problems of Archaeology, and try to combat some of the snobbery and elitism of the Bembridge Scholars. So come in and look around, if that interests you.

A quick note on comments

I found out today that at least one person has tried to leave a comment on this blog, but it has not appeared on the blog or in the spam queue. I’d like to apologise if this has happened to you. I don’t know whether this is a one-off or not. If you’ve tried to comment and it hasn’t been published, it’s not that I have suppressed it. Unless you’re writing irrelevant comments on pharmaceuticals, that is.

Let me know if you’ve been having trouble getting through. You can email me at aleb4 at cantab.net.

Learning from videogames

With a title like that, on a museum blog,  you’d expect something about using videogames in museum space, or to entice new visitors. I’m sure such approaches could work (provided they pull off the tricky feat of being both good learning experiences, and good games) but I want to talk about what I’ve learned from helping to write videogames.

From time to time, I take part in the pyweek competition, with some of my friends. I usually write stories and produce graphics. Our team’s performance (we’ve won a couple of times) has much more to do with the fact that my friends are awesome programmers, but it has been a great way for me to learn new skills.

The first time I found myself telling a videogame story through a 3D space, it wasn’t much different to my (admittedly limited) experience of exhibition design. There’s not much difference between telling a story about running around a deserted palace collecting objects, and telling a story through collected objects in a repurposed palace. Both museum and game designers have to recognise the power of narrative to pique people’s interest.

The fact that narrative is distributed over a space, rather than laid out in a sequence, like in a book or film is a crucial challenge. Designers must guide the audience through, without limiting their options or frustrating their choices. It has to make sense and be intriguing whichever way you come at it.

Aside from the theoretical perspectives, 3D modelling is also a great tool for museum professionals. I would definitely use it if I were planning an exhibition to see how it would look and feel. I’ve started work on a 3D model to visualize past displays of Greek and Roman material at the Fitzwilliam. It’s early days yet, but I’m quite excited about the potential for visualizing my research and other people’s. Here’s a screenshot of the first draft.

Are museums mausoleums?

The sort of museum I work in is full of funerary monuments, and a good chunk of the actual mausoleum is in a museum. But this question runs deeper than that. People talk about museums as dead places, full of dead things. It seems to me to be a real challenge that museum professionals should think carefully about.

Archaeologists tend to see themselves as more concerned with life, looking for evidence of what people in the past did and why. Even objects can be thought of as having biographies in which they are born, live a life of changing relationships and finally die. Yet in this sense, museums are full of dead objects: chairs noone sits in, cups noone drinks from, altarpieces noone worships near, gravestones with noone under them.

A grave marker in the Athens National Archaeological Museum

But this is not always the case. The Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology has a Chinese teapot that was a gift from the maker (there’s a link to a video of him at work here). He made a condition of the gift that the museum should regularly season it with tea to give it a patina. This is clearly an object that would “die” if it was kept in the traditional museum way: behind glass, never touched or used.

But I don’t think that all objects in glass cases are dead in this way. They are still meaningful and useful to everyone who takes pleasure from looking at them. Many can never go back to what they once were. An ancient statue can’t normally be displayed in the ruins it was found in: it would be damaged by pollution and the elements. Even if it could, it would not have the same meaning since the religious and social life it was once a part of have long gone.

Good museums give life to their objects by recognising what has been lost and helping objects to tell their own life stories and have meaningful relationships with people in the present. In this sense, being an object in a museum is more like a productive retirement than a death.

UK museums: turbo reviews

It’s become clear that reviewing my entire summer is too big a project to be compatible with my current workload. I still want to get my thoughts down before I forget them all, so I’m upping the pace.

Henry Moore – A lot of the write-ups in newspapers focused on the idea that this would be somehow surprising. Whether this was them picking up an idea in a press release or just a symptom of the desire for new discoveries that crops up in the “THEY’VE X-RAYED A PAINTING …p.s. there’s a new exhibition” story that runs once a month. I think the exhibition’s real strengths were rather that it was a really good retrospective, with a sense of narrative, light and dark and an almost cathartic peace at the end.

Close Examination- The National Gallery rose well to the challenge of explaining quite complex scientific and art-historical techniques. There was a lot of text on the wall, in the way that often leads to accusations that it would have made a better book. The saving grace was that the text was all about looking closely at the paintings, so there was no chance of it distracting you from them. The exhibition was refreshingly honest about instances where the gallery has been deceived or mistaken, but it also managed to show the institution’s strengths at research. The uplifting conclusion was that the same skills that reveal mistakes can also tell fascinating stories about how paintings were made and received.  If you’re sad you missed it, there’s still loads of interesting stuff on the web site.

Tyntesfield is the first national trust property I’ve been to where I haven’t been able to see the outside of the house. This summer it was under masses of scaffolding. I was very much impressed with the way they kept as much open and visible as possible, but also used the scaffolding to take tours onto the roof to show people a different angle. People seemed fascinated with the project and excited about how it would turn out. I wonder if museums could learn from this decision to exhibit a work in progress.

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