Discoveries in the Storage Rooms: A summary of the workshop “New Research on Old Collections in Southwest Asian Archaeology”

By Mette Bangsborg Thuesen

Arriving at the British Museum | Foto: © Antonia Höhne

What can we gain from studying old collections? With which approaches do we best tackle poorly documented objects in order to get new data? What does a sustainable future archaeology look like and how does it connect with museum collections?

These were some of the questions we debated during the workshop “New Research on Old Collections in Southwest Asian Archaeology”.  This three-day event was organised by PhD students from Berlin Graduate School of Ancient Studies (BerGSAS), Freie Universität Berlin and Cardiff University and took place in the beginning of August 2023 at the British Museum, where it was kindly hosted by the Department of the Middle East. The purpose of the workshop was to connect early career researchers from across Europe working on old collection and archival material – and what better place to do so than in one of the oldest cultural institutions in Europe that is constantly centred in the debate on the political and educational roles of museums. The event was made possible with funding from the Berliner Antike-Kolleg and the BerGSAS.

Tour through the Near Eastern galleries with curator Dr Paul Collins and Dr St John Simpson | Foto: © Lisa Wolff-Heger

It is generally stated that about 90-95% of objects in museum collections are kept in storage[1][2][3]. Rarely these artefacts are properly researched, fully digitised and thereby not available to the general public. The ten participants of the workshop all had in common that they are constructing new knowledge by studying and rediscovering these objects, which are normally left forgotten in the storage rooms. Although this kind of data can be considered an undervalued resource, there are of course some methodological issues to be considered when dealing with artefacts, which often lack adequate documentation or provenance. This is something which all the participating students showed is possible to overcome by approaching the material with new scientific methods and ideas. Each student provided a 20-minute talk spread over four sessions that covered a great variety of topics from chalcolithic pottery making to the “life-biographies of Mesopotamian statues” to late antique-Early Islamic brass-making. These presentations filled the mornings of the first two days, and here we learned about the use of scanning electron microscopy to trace the trade and distribution of Islamic glass bangles, experimental research on the making of clay figurines from Ur, and use-wear analysis of Sasanian pottery to identify storage and cooking practices, among other topics.

The afternoons of the first two days were spent with engaging talks from the curators of the British Museum, who guided us through the storage rooms, exhibition halls and the Department of Scientific Research. It was exciting to get this rare “behind-the-scenes” view on how the ancient Mesopotamian and Persian collections are managed, stored, and exhibited. This also provided some insights on the work tasks associated with curation – how do you best navigate the many visitors through the gallery? How do you make an exhibition inclusive to a wider audience? How should we address information about provenance in the display cases?

Brainstorming session from the group discussion on the final day | Foto: © Lisa Wolff-Heger

On the final day, we concluded the workshop with a round table discussion, in which we addressed the future of archaeology and museums. Here we in particularly discussed the role of our discipline in the current climate crisis and how we can best improve our research practices. A recurring theme was the essential need to promote the importance of collection-oriented research as a sustainable way to produce more archaeological knowledge. Two other issues raised were accessibility and inclusivity. This involves ensuring that external researchers can more easily find and access objects and documentation within museums and archives, and that the results of our research are available to the public, regardless of their background.

Group photo of all the participants of the workshop and curator Dr St John Simpson, who helped coordinate the event at the museum | Foto: © Lisa Wolff-Heger

The workshop ended with a beer at the nearby pub, where we shared ideas for future meetings. What we have gathered from these discussions is that leaving corpuses of material understudied is not only a loss to the scientific community, but also a matter of moral neglect. In this workshop we highlighted that in order to reach a more sustainable approach to research, perhaps instead of spending large amounts of resources on field projects abroad, we should re-evaluate this constant need to produce new data and look at what is already in our stores. In other words; the future of archaeology may actually lie within the past of our discipline.

[1] https://www.iccrom.org/index.php/publication/re-org-method-reorganize-museum-storage

[2] https://www.historyassociates.com/how-one-museum-got-over-45000-items-out-of-storage-published-to-the-web-and-discoverable

[3] https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-london-12214145



Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
teamredaktion (2023, 14. November). Discoveries in the Storage Rooms: A summary of the workshop “New Research on Old Collections in Southwest Asian Archaeology” Berliner Antike-Blog. Abgerufen am 2. März 2024, von https://doi.org/10.58079/lv0f

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