Saturday, 16 June 2012

More Than Musty Mummies at the Egypt Centre

Delegates at the More than Musty Mummies Seminar

Yesterday I attended an ACCES (Association of Curators for Collections from Egypt and Sudan) seminar entitled "More than Musty Mummies: Novel Approaches to Egyptology and the Public" at Swansea University.  Superbly organised by Carolyn Grave-Brown and Wendy Goodridge of the Egypt Centre, the day sought to explore ways in which visitors can best experience Egyptology exhibits.  It was an amazing day where curators, students, volunteers and Egyptologists gathered to  examine how museums can encourage engagement with the public.

There were five speakers over the course of the day and each one gave a fascinating insight in to how their own museums have sought to interact with their visitors.

Jane Marley of the Royal Cornwall Museum spoke about the development of the new gallery in Truro.  Much thought had been given to improve the visitor experience which has resulted in a more spacious environment, new display cases, conservation of objects and a clearer orientation through the gallery.  More dramatic lighting, colour co-ordination and themed displays have contributed to a clearer message being portrayed and the use of interactive displays have been introduced to encourage learning by activity.  A lot of thought and sensitivity had been given to the display of the well known and popular mummy - Iset-tayef-nakht - which is now a focal point of the display but has been covered to reveal only the head and feet.  Visitors are encouraged to say the mummy's name with the wish 'May he live forever' out loud in keeping with the ancient Egyptian belief that to remember the deceased's name achieves immortality.

Campbell Price spoke about "Egyptology and the Public at the Manchester Museum".  Holding over 15,000 objects, Manchester Museum is the fifth largest collection of ancient Egyptian artefacts in the UK.  Campbell spoke about the many various ways the Museum encouraged involvement with the public.  These included close involvement with the Manchester Museum Youth Board, senior groups and the visually impaired - all of which had been asked to participate in choosing artefacts to go on display with explanations as to why they have been chosen.  Experimental archaeology has also been a key activity with reproduction sling shots, knitted socks and faience all being made.  Campbell also gave an overview of the research and development of the new gallery project and once again spoke of the sensitivity of including human remains.

Thomas Cadbury of the RAMM (Royal Albert Memorial Museum) spoke of the creation and use of the  new Ancient World's Gallery in Exeter.  Much thought has been given to trying to bring the collection of Greek, Roman and Egyptian artefacts together to tell the story of Exeter and the city's place in the world.  The museum's Victorian roots has been very much respected and, like many provincial museums, owes much of its collection to local Victorian collectors and benefactors.  The RAMM has a diverse and enthusiastic audience with a relaxed atmosphere.  Its successful schools' program has resulted in the children returning to the museum accompanied with their families.  Whilst space is limited, the new gallery has improved visitor flow through the displays and a new chronological theme, activity wall and better display has contributed to a more lucid story being created.  Volunteer projects, coaching skills and seminars have also proved extremely popular.

Ashleigh Taylor, Volunteer Manager at the Egypt Centre, Swansea spoke of the museum's volunteer program which has proved to be extremely rewarding for both the museum and for the volunteers themselves.  Around 120 volunteers help in the Egypt Centre which has proved to be a fundamental resource for the smooth running of the museum.  Volunteers are aged between 10 - 88 years of age and are from all backgrounds and have differing abilities; child volunteers work on Saturdays and run the activities and engage with the public under the supervision of an adult.  Volunteer duties include gallery maintenance, visitor care and the delivering of the educational programs - full training is given and there is a progressive route through the roles.  Ashleigh pointed out that the volunteer program has been so successful the child volunteer role now has a waiting list.  The volunteers have contributed to a relaxed and happy atmosphere which in turn promotes a good visitor experience.

Sue Giles of Bristol Museum gave a fascinating insight into the history of the museum which included telling us about  where the artefacts came from, early 19th century lectures and mummy unwrappings at Bristol.  Sue then guided us through how the Egyptian gallery was researched and then developed, which resulted in its opening in 2007.  Bristol has many interactive exhibits which tell the story of the people who lived, worked and died in ancient Egypt.  A key learning tool which Bristol Musuem has used is to strongly link the object with its interpretation.  Sensitivity regarding human remains were a fundamental concern and visitors are asked to think about the fact that the mummies were once human beings and are given the choice of looking at the exhibits or moving on.  Digital exhibits, audio sounds, colour, dramatic lighting and visual aids have combined to give a sensory experience to the exhibits.  No labels are included within the display cases but information is accessible via computer screens and the visitor can decide how deep they wish to explore depending on their level of interest.

The talks and the discussions which resulted from them were deeply inspiring.  I came away from the day with my head buzzing not only from what I had heard but also by the chance to engage with people from different institutions and who were coming to the seminar with different perspectives.  It was also a great opportunity to meet up with fellow bloggers Campbell Price (Egypt at the Manchester Museum) and  Kasia Szpakowska (Ancient Egyptian Cobra Project).

A truly enjoyable experience.  Thanks for a great day!!!

Wendy Goodridge, Sheila Nowell and myself waiting for the afternoon talks to begin

Dr Kasia Szpakowska
Rosie Freeman and Rosalyn Thomas in the Egypt Centre shop

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