I have just returned from a wonderful five and a half weeks in the US where I visited approximately ten museums of archaeology and anthropology.
I say ‘approximately’ because the final museum, which I visited three times, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, is considerably more than ten museums rolled into one! I had thought that it would be the greatest of all the museums I visited and while it takes the cake for the number of objects on display, all the museums I visited, large and small, had many things of value to view, think about and enjoy, not least the manner of their display.
When I left Australia, the purpose of my trip to America was primarily to attend the American Schools of Oriental Research annual meeting in San Diego. As I’ve written previously, this was a pretty big step for me back into archaeology. I’ll be posting about some of the sessions I attended shortly.
The idea of a tour of great archaeological museums occurred to me as an extension of that initial purpose. Australia has some wonderful museums of archaeology (link to websites) (and I’m even now thinking of taking some time to visit them), but the opportunity of being in the US opened the possibility of viewing some ‘old friends’ – familiar objects of study from my university days. My object was simple, walk slowly round the museum, enjoying the displays, particularly of figurines, take photos, reflect and re-immerse myself in the ancient world.
I chose the following museums and visited them in this order:
Of course, there are many others I could have chosen, but these were the nine that seemed to, well, come up on my google search, to be honest!
At first, my aims were simple, just to locate, ponder, photograph and basically enjoy the figurines I found on display. I used my camera and notebook to record what I saw, figurines as objects in a display cabinet. I read some of the information panels, but not all. The purpose was just to look at figurines with a view to researching the more interesting looking ones and possibly blog about them.
Some of the visits included personal trips down memory lane (Assyria to Iberia, a wonderful exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Here you can find the blog kept by the curators and I’ll soon be posting my own reflections on it.
Seeing once again objects from my undergrad days, such as the material from the UR III Tombs on display at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology was delightful.
There were also exciting first-time meetings (for example, the black figure vase showing women weaving kept at the Met) of objects I knew so well but had never seen. I was thrilled to be there, happy to be surrounded by fascinating archaeological artefacts once more.
As I moved down my list of museums, I found myself not only looking at the figurines, but in the manner of their display and the information provided to the visitor. I began to pay more attention to the information provided to the viewer about the figurines, the other objects they were placed with and the section of the museum they were housed in.
Some interesting ideas started to form in my mind. None of these ideas is as yet fully formed even now; I am still reflecting on them and will post in full soon.
Here is an incomplete list of some of these ideas:
Now, I am quite sure that the questions above are hardly original. But I am not a museum professional, just a museum visitor with a special interest in how figurines are displayed and the information offered to other visitors about them.
Regarding figurines, there does appear to be a disconnection between innovative interpretations of figurines being developed by archaeologists and either the knowledge of those ideas by museum professionals or the decisions made by curators or exhibition designers to offer these interpretations to the public. On the other hand, as the fertility cult theory is still so pervasive in Near Eastern archaeology, perhaps curators believe this is the current, unquestioned theory.
I’m wondering about how figurines displayed in museums relate to archaeological theory and practice.
Do you visit museums? Have you ever wondered about the information provided to you about objects or paintings? Have you ever come away from a display thinking ‘but why’?
Leave a comment and tell us of your experiences with figurines (or other objects) in museums!
Two posts ago we looked at the culture-history school. By the 1950s, archaeologists became less and less satisfied with the empirical approach. ‘Common sense’ and intuitive ways of thinking about the past have two main problems: they’re heavily influenced by the archaeologist’s own worldview, and they assume that all peoples, throughout time, did things in the same way. They looked at ancient objects and using formal analysis and intuition, or their own ‘common-sense’ interpreted them in ways that made sense to them.
However, using your own common sense means you can’t be open to another person’s common sense. Interpreting objects based on your own knowledge, experience, and ideas means you impose your worldview on others. Thinking about others in terms of yourself quickly leads to value judgments about those people.
American archaeologists in the 1950s began drawing on anthropological data for archaeological interpretation. A new ‘direct-historical’ approach observed indigenous cultures and applied that information to archaeological materials. This new school of thought believed that many of the conclusions reached by culture-historians were nothing more than idle conjecture. They redefined archaeology as the search for the processes by which culture change may be observed. Rather than looking for reasons for culture change through classifying objects, the processual school was interested in reconstructing ancient societies and economies, and looking at internal variation in cultures.
Thinking about the archaeological record, processual archaeologists asked research questions, such as, ‘How did early peoples survive?’ Observing that some peoples hunt their food, processualists might come up with the theory that early peoples hunted and from anthropological observation, learned that some peoples used bows and arrows to catch their prey.
On the excavation, when an arrowhead is found, this proves the theory. For processualists, identifying publicly observable behaviour, such as hunting, in the archaeological record, is the goal of the archaeologist.
Can you see how the deductive approach is as ‘theory-laden’ as the empirical approach? The archaeologist has the theory before examining the data.
The processual approach to archaeological interpretation looked for the reasons for culture change on the basis that all human behaviour can be explained by reference to a series of external variables, such as the environment or climate. These researchers believed that cultural behaviour is driven by systems and processes within which all societies exist and that all cultural change can be predicted using universal laws of cause and effect.
The rise of the processualist school coincided with the development of new technologies, such as computerised analyses and radiocarbon dating. Field and laboratory methods were adopted from science and applied to excavation and analysis. Processualists, believed that the function of objects could be determined through experimental breakage, use-wear analysis and artefact distribution. These studies would reveal the forces outside of human society which caused cultural change.