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Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Plaster casts, class and art. CIPEG 2015.

We have a handling tray of real ancient artefacts (not masterpieces) for all visitors to enjoy at the Egypt Centre because we believe in the importance of handling the real thing (see the picture)

But have still been thinking about some of the things I learnt from CIPEG 2015. Something that came out time and time again was how in the early days of museums (what one might consider early varied from museum to museum), copies of masterpieces could be held to be more important than ‘second rate’ actual objects. Interesting and completely opposite to what I had hitherto believed. I always like the idea of the real object, even if grotty because of its magical contagion value. That’s why I got interested in ‘old things’ and ended up working in museums, because ‘old things’ are somehow linked directly to the past and can somehow transport you there. And of course, I have grown up in the modern western tradition with its emphasis on ‘authenticity’ (whatever that means). So, my take on plaster casts was that they may be beautiful but they are only real in so far as there post manufacture history is concerned. If they had value it was more to do with the recent past, perhaps as evidence for changes in what was considered important in Egyptology. Additionally, to be honest, I don’t know what masterpieces are. I believe others claim they have to be aesthetically beautiful and fairly rare? So a beautiful black-topped redware pot wouldn’t count as a masterpiece. What if it was an unusual shape?

But to return to the point, it seems that generally the real artefacts, even if common and ugly have gained more importance, particularly in the 20th century. So how and why did things change? Well, I have read some interesting stuff by Alice Stevenson. It can be accessed here. She shows how the partage system and Petrie’s distribution of finds to museums meant that the ‘grotty’ items, typical of most archaeological excavations, became increasingly valued. At CIPEG 2015 we learnt from Alice Williams (an ex- Egypt Centre volunteer now doing her PhD at Oxford :-) ) about how Petrie’s exhibitions of items in London were so well attended. Maybe these exhibitions too helped show ‘the general public’ what real excavated remains were like, that they were rarely masterpieces of ‘art’, but nevertheless of value.  Additionally too, one may expect that the increase in the belief in the importance of ‘science’ and technology, also meant that everyday artefacts were more valued.

But, I am wondering if there could be a class element to all this?  Could it be that the masterpieces were more inclined to be valued by those well-educated, elite individuals with the necessary training, those brought up learning the classics and appreciating art?

One might argue that archaeology is associated with the non-elite, technology and archaeology; and classics with the elite and written text. Chris Stray has written on this. The growth in the importance of the everyday object, as opposed to the masterpiece, could also be bound up with increasing influence by the non-elite, less interested in aesthetics and more interested in technology? Perhaps it’s still so. There are different tribes in Egyptology. I wonder if the backgrounds to those interested in ‘art’ differ markedly from those interested in say, technology?

I am also thinking, should we make more use of our plaster casts? We only have a couple, but they are copies of famous things elsewhere. Should we use them in teaching? As CIPEG taught me, other museums do. Nika Lavrentyeva gave an excellent talk on the use of plaster casts in the Pushkin Museum. I’m not sure I feel so excited about copies as the real thing, but maybe that is a result of my background. 

Stray, C., 1998. Classics Transformed. Schools, Universities and Society in England, 1830-1960. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Friday, 11 September 2015

Useful enquiries

Sometimes museum enquiries seem time consuming and not at all useful to the museum. In fact, for this reason some museums have considered charging. We don't at the Egypt Centre, which is just as well as often our enquiries are interesting and lead to additional information about the collection.

We recently had a very useful enquiry which led me to look in a bit more depth at one of our objects and showed that we had catalogued it incorrectly.

W1371, picture above, had been incorrectly catalogued as coming from Deir el Bahri, of course it doesn't! This was pointed out to me by an academic researcher doing some work on Deir el Bahri, who was asking if we had artefacts from her site. It actually comes from Kurna, on the west bank at Luxor and is from the mortuary temple (the temple where offerings were given to the dead king) of Thutmose III. As it says in the square top left it comes from the Heneket-ankh (which means 'Offering Life'.

So, I looked into this a little more. I don't really know much about it. And, in doing so, learnt all about how temples on the west bank were altered to accommodate the increasing numbers of priests carrying the sacred barques (model's of boats in which statues of gods were carried) in procession. Well, obviously, if you have more people carrying the barque you have to widen the doorways. I also learnt about the excavations at the Heneket-ankh.

Then I revised the online information we have here on the actual piece.

So, thank you very much to our enquirer.