By Alina Kozlovski |
I spent a lot of time in museums. I study ancient Roman history so that might seem like a given, but my thesis does not directly relate to any particular object or collection. You can find me standing around taking ridiculous amounts of photos of object labels, pouring through the catalogues available in the shop and participating in the many museum-related twitter hashtags (for some procrastination fun: #museum101 for creepy museum things; #dullmuseumsnaps for boring museum things; #museummatch for the most academic version of Tinder you will ever see). Though some of you may be studying topics that deal with objects and will, no doubt, have already experienced the benefits of spending time in a museum, I am writing this post for the many of you to whom they are probably generally interesting institutions, but not ones you visit beyond a tourist trip, a special lecture or a conference reception. I would argue that a useful thought experiment for all of us is to try to imagine how our thesis would look as an exhibition.
Being an ancient historian, I have to start at the beginning. The ancient word comes from ‘μουσεῖον’ which was a place for the Muses, though not necessarily a building or in any way connected with objects. The most famous ancient mouseion was at Alexandria and the famous library was just a part of what was a wider centre of learning. The ancient context is relevant here for thinking about what museums are today. Many modern ancient historians liken them to ancient temples, though the comparison has as many detractors as supporters. For the Greeks and Romans, these buildings were repositories of gifts brought by worshippers as well as the plunder of war. Sound familiar? Taking the idea of ancient and modern comparisons from the opposite side, some researchers from museum studies compare museums to ancient Roman forums and characterise them as busy places where people and ideas mingle. This sort of hustle and bustle of conversation and interpretation is I think where museums can be useful devices for us to think about our research.
Fish from the great flood, a thunderbolt and fairy loaf. This display at the Birmingham Museum shows how objects have been interpreted differently throughout time.
Many academics today seek public engagement – leading to much-desired ‘impact’ – by curating a museum exhibition. The ability to convey complex ideas by using short labels that form a coherent narrative is an important one. Likewise, the ability to quickly and concisely demonstrate how a material thing represents a concept, or questions it if it can. Not everyone will end up working on an exhibition in their academic career, but the medium can still be a useful device for thinking through ideas.
Any exhibition is like a thesis
This panel from the Vasa Museum in Stockholm explains how there are a variety of ways to understand an image from the past.
Any exhibition is like a thesis – it has an argument it tries to get across by using particular tools. While for the historian these may be copious footnotes and a particular writing style, for an exhibition curator this means labels and panels, decisions about colours and lighting, interactive elements and, of course, the objects. Museums have done this differently throughout time and these days some of them even illustrate to their visitors that interpretations can vary. Some take these ideas to the extreme, playing with the medium beyond most people’s expectations. For example, at the University of Tennessee you can see an exhibit of a centaur skeleton which was created both to recreate an ancient perspective on unknown material remains and to demonstrate the importance of scepticism, even in an authoritative museum-like setting. An exhibition on the earthquake-destroyed city of Sagalassos came complete with modern rubble and opera music to try and recreate a sense of drama and destruction and, elsewhere, an unconventional exhibition of ancient Greek and Roman objects worked to subvert the idea of museums altogether. Since our theses still have to come in a pretty standard format, even just thinking about how you would take your topic into a museum space might inspire you to think outside the box.
This exercise will also encourage you to consider how knowledge can be transmitted beyond the medium of words. What objects would you pick (assuming you have access to anything in the world)? In addition, there may be something to be gained from thinking about your work not just as a set of chapters with an overarching theme, but also as a space. A visitor might not follow a predetermined route from A to B, so can your ideas match up in other ways? Also, the act of picking objects to exemplify abstract notions can lead to new avenues of enquiry. I once set my undergraduate students the task of thinking about how to create an exhibition about a topic we were looking at in class and this led to interesting discussions regarding our assumptions about objects representing complex concepts and how quickly those can fall away with some scrutiny (i.e. can a static object represent a process?). We like to think the material world has meaning and, no matter your thesis topic, it plays a role in it. This can be through the material lives of the past people you study or through the instruments you use to gather your data. Can we use this world as a tool for thinking through how we make our arguments?
Some say that museums are graveyards where objects go once they fall out of use.
Objects wait for explanations in this ‘visible storage’ cabinet in the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge. The black and yellow tape makes their unlabelled forms look like hazards in an otherwise carefully curated and meticulously interpreted space.
Some say that museums are graveyards where objects go once they fall out of use. I think we can be a bit more optimistic than that: they provide the perfect playground for even the most text-based of us to think about new ways to present our thoughts. Since museum exhibitions are one of the main ways that academic research gets distributed to the wider world, it’s important to consider how this is done. Next time you visit one, take some time to think about how it speaks to its audience and what you might have done differently. Also think if you had all the money and objects in the world, how would you use this medium to convey the ideas you’ve been grappling with for years. One of these places for the Muses may even prove inspiring for your own work.
Alina Kozlovski is a third year PhD student in Classics at Cambridge, having previously completed a BA and MPhil at the University of Sydney. Her research focuses on the way that ancient Romans engaged with material culture from the past (i.e. the ancient Roman version of archaeology). Her different case studies look at this through the themes of ruination, reconstruction and reenactment. Aside from doing thesis work she has also participated in several excavations around the Mediterranean and currently works at the Museum of Classical Archaeology in Cambridge.
Images 2-4 by Alina Kozlovski in the museums referenced