By Katherine Blouin
As an ancient historian and, therefore, a kind of Antiquity nerd, I love to hang out in museums. Now as time goes by, I am increasingly self-aware of how I visit museum exhibitions. As it turns out, my visitor’s gaze is expanding. While the young me was in awe of the objects themselves, and prone to ingest whatever explanation panels there were with full trust in their “expert” nature – which I for instance did for 9-hours in a row the first time I visited the Louvre’s Egyptian collection in 1998; I mean how much more of an ancient Egypt-obsessed can you get? – the “mid-career” scholar I now am cannot help but feel like museum visits are work, and, as such, opportunities for critical reflections. More: Since I’ve become particularly interested in the relationship between imperialism and museums as institution of knowledge (re)production, I now find myself very much drawn to how exhibitions can shape visitors’ understanding of the past, and of its relationship to the present. This summer, I’ve had the chance to visit a few museums in Egypt, Greece, and Canada. I’ve found myself both exhilarated by some initiatives, and disappointed, if not annoyed by missed opportunities.
Since I couldn’t keep bottling up these thoughts any longer, I’ve made a little list of my main dos and don’ts, with examples from 4 museums: Athens’ Museum of Cycladic Art, Acropolis Museum, and Byzantine and Christian Museum, as well as Montréal’s Musée Pointe-à-Callière’s special exhibition Reines d’Égypte/Queens of Egypt (organized in collaboration with Turin’s Museo Egizio).
1. Address questions of provenance – including archaeological context and, when this applies, the implications of illegal excavations. This is a great way to make the general audience more aware of the ethical and political dimension of archaeology, the Antiquities market, and museums.
Panel from the Museum of Cycladic Art
2. Comment on the coloring of ancient human representations. In this particular day and age, to make such basic facts of ancient iconography known beyond academia is more crucial than ever. This is all more so the case that the inhabitants of the ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern world had a profoundly different understanding of what skin colours meant (for instance, skin colour was commonly a gender marker in ancient Egyptian art, and thus had nothing to do with “race”), let alone of “ethnicity” (itself anachronistic a word). The Acropolis Museum has been doing great work on the colours of ancient statues, and this has led to several museographical displays in their main gallery (panels, replicas, online resources and even an online colouring game). It is forbidden to take pictures in the galleries, so I didn’t take any, but you are welcome to browse through their website. The topic is also addressed in the Museum of Cycladic Art.
Panel from the Museum of Cycladic Art
3. Acknowledge what we don’t know (for sure). I find it crucial to point out to my students how history and archaeology are fundamentally work-in-progress disciplines, and I think museums can also play a big role in making the general public aware of the importance of evidence-based (absence of) knowledge.
Panels from the Museum of Cycladic Art
4. Use digital technologies in a way that allows visitors to contextualize and visualize the “social life” of the artefacts they see. Displays of this type prove very efficient when it comes to highlighting the historical significance of ancient objects. I really enjoyed the animated projections and videos featured the Reines d’Égypte exhibit. These were conceived by Montréal’s Ubisoft, which is behind the video game series Assassin’s Creeds (itself a great example of how ancient history and archaeology can constructively enhance contemporary entertainment, and vice versa):
“A collaboration with Pointe-à-Callière Museum for this unique exhibition was natural for us. Like Assassin’s Creed Origins, Queens of Egypt proposes a highly immersive experience in the heart of Ancient Egypt. With the research data already collected for the game, we knew we had the content to accentuate the immersive experience of the visit. I think this partnership clearly demonstrates the many possibilities the medium of video games has to offer when applied to other spheres than entertainment,” declared M. Jean Guesdon, Creative Director of the Assassin’s Creed brand at Ubisoft Montréal. ” (from the exhibit’s website)
Video shot conceived by Ubisoft for Reines d’Égypte (source: Musée Pointe-à-Callière)
Likewise, the Byzantine and Christian Museum’s temporary exhibition “Byzantium and the others in the first millennium: An Empire of stability in a turbulent era” featured compelling 3D video projections dedicated to the “past life” of a selection of artefacts (a short news clip available on the exhibition page shows these displays better).
3D projection window from Athens’ Byzantine and Christian Museum
5. Acknowledge and discuss the relationships between colonialism, the acquisition of museum collections, and modern, “western” art.
Panel from the Museum of Cycladic Art
6. Include a segment on reception. In other words, give visitors an opportunity to learn more about how the ancient world inspired modern art and politics. I wish I had seen inspiring displays/panels of this type seen this summer, but alas, it hasn’t been the case yet. However, should anyone at Pointe-à-Callière wish to add on be it only a tiny section on Egyptian queens in today’s pop culture, please drop me a line: I’ve got *many* ideas, including Katy Perry’s Black Horse, Kendrick Lamar and SZA’s All the Stars and, of course, Beychella and Queen Bey + Jay Z’s recent, pharaonizing pics live from Berlin’s Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung!
7. Have a fun, funky gift shop, with nice, affordable replicas of ancient jewels, good-quality books, and some kitsch stuff. For, let’s face it, who doesn’t love a kitsch Rosetta stone memento in the office or a funky Moschophoros magnet on the fridge?
1. Miss the opportunity to make the public aware of what “unknown provenance” means by not saying anything about what such a label often means. This is all the more problematic when – as is the case with the Reines d’Égypte exhibition currently on in Montréal – most of the exhibited objects are of undocumented provenance.
2. Show archival pictures of excavations without addressing the particular geopolitical context in which these excavations took place nor the types of labor they showcase. Here too, Reines d’Égypte disappointed me a great deal. Towards the end of the exhibition, one finds 3 large archival pictures. While they could (and I dare say, should) have provided an opportunity to briefly contextualize the Italian excavations from which most of the artefacts came from and highlight the nature of labour relationships on Egyptian (and most other) digs at the time, including child labor, these important features of the history of the Museo Egizio’s collection are completely ignored. The result is, sadly, an Orientalist photographic display where Egyptian workers appear as “exotic”, anonymous bodies to be either put to work (by Schiaparelli, the Italian excavator in charge of the pictured fieldwork) or gazed at (by the visitors).
Large size archival pictures (incl. 2 captions and 1 detail from a larger picture) exhibited toward the end of Reines d’Égypte
3. Systematically call early digs “excavations” when led by European or North American scholars and “looting/illegal digging” when performed by locals. This dichotomic conception of archeology is not only reductive and racist; it also completely ignores the deeply connected, and complicated, relationships between local and foreign interests, scholars/experts, as well as consumers and dealers of Antiquities (just watch the pictures above again and notice who is seen doing the physical work of digging, and for whom).
4. Exhibit/Discuss the finding of human bodies without addressing the ethical questions that increasingly stem from these practices and the methodological challenges faced by scholars who excavate/study this type of remains. These questions do pertain to a variety of important and interesting issues, from local beliefs regarding the afterlife of deceased bodies/individuals to dilemmas on their study, exhibition and ownership, to claims for repatriation. These are highly debated topics among a growing number of scholars and local (notably aboriginal) communities. For this very reason, and also out of respect for the ancient individuals displayed and the communities they (are believed to) come from, museums have, in my view, an ethical duty of respect and self-awareness.
Archival picture from Reines d’Égypte: “Prince Khaemwaset’s tomb upon its discovery”. Neither the caption nor the surrounding exhibit of mummy cases from that cache address the ethical questions posed in #4
5. Be cheap on the info panels. If I, as an ancient historian, feel lost looking at a whole lineup of artefacts and works of art that only come with super brief captions and no context, can non-specialists possibly feel?
6. Confine exhibitions to a lineup of clichés for the sake of appealling to the “general public”. While I perfectly understand that museums need to fund themselves and thus attract visitors, I also believe the “general public” appreciates/benefits from being brought beyond of the usual, highly problematic “eternal Egypt” or “Greece craddle of democracy” tropes. So please please please, let’s all stop reproducing the age-old stereotypes regarding the erotic, mysterious, violent Orient or the civilized, democratic, sophisticated Greco-Roman world, let’s all stop focusing (quasi)-exclusively on the rich and famous, let’s stop saturating the soundscape with new age or Lawrence-of-Arabia-style music.
Don’t underestimate your audience.
Be bold. Be honest. Be humble. Be up-to-date. Be fun. Be relevant.
Let me now end this post with Charles Bigeast‘s ancient Greece-inspired gif entitled “Caryatide”. Cause, why not?