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Seen But Not Heard: What Museums Tell Visitors About Figurines

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.

Me presenting my poster at ASOR 2014.

Me presenting my poster at ASOR 2014


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:

  1. Archaeological Museum of the Oriental Institute, Chicago
  2. Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
  3. Semitic Museum, Harvard University
  4. Peabody Museum, Harvard University
  5. Harvard Art Museums
  6. Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institute
  7. Freer Sackler Museums, Smithsonian Institute
  8. Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia
  9. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

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.

Assyria to Iberia exhibition poster at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (own photo)

Assyria to Iberia exhibition poster at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (own photo)

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.

Bull-headed lyre from Ur III tombs.

Bull-headed lyre from Ur III tombs. Read more about it here.

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.

Vase depicting women weaving. Read more about it here.

Vase depicting women weaving. Read more about it here.

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:

  1. Whether archaeological artefacts are pieces of ‘art’ and indeed what is meant by a ‘museum of art’. What’s the difference between a ‘museum of art’ and an ‘art gallery’? What is being said about an archaeological artefact when it is displayed in an institute with ‘art’ in its name? Are figurines works of art anyway?


  1. Whether objects without provenance, obtained by museums via a method other than scientific excavation, need to be displayed in some other way than simply as pieces of ‘art’? What message is the public receiving (if any) about the value of archaeological objects by having those without known context on display? What information choices are being made to describe figurines without context in museums?


  1. Female figurines are almost without exception interpreted in museum displays as having something to do with ‘fertility’, either as a votive offering, a depiction of a goddess or a worshipper, or a protective or magical device (at the Natural History Museum of the Smithsonian Institute female figurines are housed within a section focussed on the development of human creativity and imagination along with writing and symbolic behaviour).


  1. The role of the archaeologist in the design of exhibits, particularly those including female figurines. Do curators study archaeology? What is the value of a museum studies or curatorial course?


  1. How can museum displays be more engaging for visitors, especially those involving figurines?


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!

Museums Have Always Been My Natural Habitat

When I was a little girl, I used to love visiting my Dad’s geology lab at the school where he taught earth sciences. I loved the musty, dustiness of it. I loved pulling open the thin, sliding drawers and exploring the tiny white cardboard specimen boxes filled with pink granite, green serpentine, glassy obsidian and other glistening, silvery, shiny, crystallised occupants. I was powerless against trilobites and ammonites.

My first museum.

Museums encompass the world, just there, waiting for you to explore. The possibilities of museums are endless. For me, there is a delightful anticipation for museums, like the beautifully wrapped gift under the Christmas tree, because the contents are unknown but surely will be good. Museums are as exciting as travelling to an unfamiliar country or a different age where there are new experiences to be had and things to discover. Museums are as inspiring as a poignant poem. They change us, if we let them. They challenge us, if we are open to it.

Museums amuse us, bring us joy, cause us to muse or ponder and they should encourage us to find our own muse or inspiration. Or at least, they should and to do all these things successfully is no small feat, I’m sure.

Most of the museums I visited in America were empty of other visitors. The Harvard Art Museum had a reasonable crowd, including groups of university students, the University of Pennsylvania Museum had a group of primary school children but few adult visitors; even the Freer Sackler Galleries at the Smithsonian were rather empty, though that might have been because I didn’t get there till late in the afternoon. You can imagine my shock, (though I really wasn’t surprised) when I got to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Hordes of people.

Visitors in the Great Hall of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (own photo).

Visitors in the Great Hall of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (own photo).

I wondered why.

The university museums are primarily used by students of archaeology, and professional researchers, I imagine. The Semitic (Harvard) and Kelsey museums (University of Michigan) have smaller than expected but nonetheless fascinating and important collections (I’m referring to the number of displayed objects and physical size of the museums), while the Oriental Institute (University of Chicago) and University of Pennsylvania Museums are somewhat larger but in all cases, one would have to deliberately seek these museums out, people like me with an interest in archaeology.

There appear to be, on the other hand, perhaps two major factors which might explain high visitor numbers at the Met and the Smithsonian Museums: they have massive collections of objects and they are ‘on the tourist map’. In other words, their existence as famous destinations attract visitors; they are one of many ‘touristy’ sights of New York and Washington respectively.

Other than the school children visiting the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthro (Get name right), given their relative obscurity or fairly limited interest to the general public, the visitors at the university museums could be identified as genuine visitors. By that I mean those people who have deliberately chosen to visit those museums because of their interest in the archaeology of the ancient Near East.

The Met and the Smithsonian, on the other hand, seem to attract both genuine museum-goers and those who visit because it is on their tour itinerary. My evidence for these two groups of visitors is based entirely on my observation of their behaviour in those museums.

Visitor photographing Mona Lisa (s

Visitor photographing Mona Lisa (source: Wikimedia Commons/ProtoPlasmakid)

‘Tourist’ visitors appear to move quickly through the galleries, rush up to display cabinets to photograph objects (often with their phones) and then immediate turn away or, alternatively, wander slowly and without any obvious interest in the exhibits at all. Perhaps they are overwhelmed and not sure where to begin. Sometimes they wander with mobile phones in hand, their eyes locked to the flickering screens rather than focussed on the wonders all around them. Neither group seemed either amused by, nor inspired to muse upon, the contents of the display cabinets.

There is one other group that I saw at both the ‘big’ museums and the university museums; young people with sketch pads who were seated before cabinets or exhibits, engaged in drawing the objects before them. I assume that they were either enrolled students of fine art, or perhaps simply indulging in their own creative pursuits. They were, indeed, finding their muse.

In contrast to the ‘tourist’ visitors at the Met and Smithsonian, the visitors at the University Museums tended to be individuals visiting alone, or in very small groups (two or three). I observed pairs of students at both the Semitic and Kelsey, one seemingly a student of archaeology ‘guiding’ the other around the displays. At the Kelsey I also observed the mother of two young girls enthusiastically engaging her daughters through questions about and exclamations over the displays. All in all, the visitors at the university museums of archaeology appeared to show an intention to engage and learn from the objects on display. The displays caused them to stop and muse. Whether that was due to the nature of the display or the intention of the visitor, is a topic for another post!

Without doubt such visitors also tread the halls of the Met and various Smithsonian museums, but the tourists I encountered suggested to me that there is a large number of visitors who are not engaged with the displays in the same intentional way I observed in visitors at the university museums. It seems that university museums could work on increasing the number of visitors, while the ‘big’ museums could work on engaging visitors!

In the next few posts I shall muse on why people visit museums and what they do when they get there. I shall post a few ideas on how museums might better engage their visitors and perhaps even some thoughts on why they may never be able to engage some visitors.

Please bear in mind that I am not a museum professional, I have not studied the ‘theory’ of museums.

I am just a grown-up little girl who spent hours in her Daddy’s geology lab and turned into a lover of museums.