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"The Past on Display: A Curatorial Perspective"

“The Past on Display: A Curatorial Perspective”

Peter and I had the pleasure of attending a talk given by the Archaeology Department at the University of Toronto on challenges in museum curation. Dr. Kate Cooper, a visiting curator from the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England gave a fascinating talk on the methods used in various museums to showcase collections and artefacts. Dr. Cooper studied at Oxford, and holds a PhD in Classical Archaeology from King’s College, London. She compared three museums: the Fitzwilliam, the Acropolis in Greece and the Ashmolean in Oxford.

What’s the million dollar question in museum curation? It’s actually two-fold: How does one bring these objects to life? How does the museum engage the general public? Museums constantly encounter this problem once they remove the object from its original surroundings. Visitors see a clay pot and the exciting discovery is lost behind ropes and glass, it’s just a broken, dusty pot. Cooper explained several methods employed by these three museums to attract visitors and create captivating displays.

Reconstruction: Museums often use reconstruction to show the original purpose of the object. Examples of this are: setting a pot in a mock ancient kitchen to help show the viewer what it was intended for and how it was used in that period. Unfortunately, some reconstructions can detract from the object by being overly “busy”, i.e., hiding the intended artefact amongst other items so that museum goers can’t distinguish between the actual object on display versus scenery items placed around it. It’s a fine balance and a constant struggle for many museums.

Themes: Museums also group objects together by themes to help contextualise displays. For example, the Getty Villa in Malibu created a “Men in Antiquity” theme with artefacts from various regions to help the viewer unfamiliar with the period.

The “Site” Museum: The Acropolis Museum opened in June 2009 and is a “site” museum. You stand on the actual site of a Byzantine classical houses. This move was controversial because of its location. Museums are increasingly playing around with architecture to make their displays more alluring.

Encyclopaedic Museums: These museums are cross cultural and demonstrate how different societies interacted. The floors are typically divided chronologically and show most civilisations, i.e., the displays don’t just feature Greek and Roman pieces, but Mycenaean, and Egyptian to name but a few. An example of this can be seen in the Fitzwilliam’s “Ancient Transport” display. The Fitzwilliam also falls into the site museum category.

Costs vary from museum to museum but one thing is evident – it’s not a cheap endeavour. The Fitzwilliam cost £1,000,000,and took two years to build. Her team included two curators, two conservators, two technicians, three classics faculty members and an external designer who had worked at the British Museum. The Ashmolean *insert picture of Ashmolean* was £61,000,000 and the Acropolis Musuem a staggering 131€ million.

Design Strategies: Dr. Cooper then turned to the Fitzwilliam, to demonstrate some design strategies they employed to improve traffic flow, visibility and to educate the public. The Fitzwilliam is a historical building built in the 1840s and is a protected heritage site in the UK. One of first problems the museum encountered was in the Ancient History section. People would walk past the Greek and Roman artefacts to get to the Egyptian display that figured prominently at the end of the exhibit. To ensure the Greek and Roman pieces weren’t entirely ignored, the museum devised a simple way to slow guests down by *insert picture of hall* installing a statue in the middle of the pathway.

Storage: The Fitzwilliam also encountered some storage problems. The museum had to carefully select what items to display to maintain public interest. The Acropolis museum employs “Archaeologic hosts” (trained Archaeologists) to explain exhibits to guests by hosting presentations and being on hand to answer questions.

Labels: Content labels are also important. The Fitzwilliam decided to keep the labels more academic and strove not to “talk down” to their audience like some other museums.  Another method of attracting visitors is to make the past relevant today. During the Londinium exhibit *insert picture of Starbuck mug) students placed ancient drinking vessels beside a Starbuck’s cup to demonstrate the relevance of the item to a modern one used for a similar purpose.

Restoration: Dr. Cooper discussed the process of restoration. There were time periods where restoration was popular and instances where restoration has been reversed in order to view the object in its original form. Dr. Cooper discussed the importance of lighting, and how to use natural light to the museum’s advantage. Lighting can greatly assist in drawing attention to specific objects and make a less glamourous display come to life for museum goers. Lastly, she explained the oft difficult process of workers creating and placing displays in the museum.

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