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Displaying antiquities in the 21st century

On 25 May 2010 a seminar took place at the Fitzwilliam Museum, with short presentations given by Dr Susan Walker (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford), Dr Anna Trofimova (State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg), Mr Marr Grieve (Friends Volunteers, the Fitzwilliam Museum) and Mrs Sarah Burles (Fitzwilliam Museum Education Department). Thirty one people attended and the event was a great success with a unanimously positive feedback.

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The Ashmolean's Ancient
World Orientation Gallery

Susan Walker, in a paper entitled Crossing Cultures, Crossing Time in the Ancient Mediterranean at the Ashmolean Museum, discussed the challenges she and her colleagues had faced at the new Ashmolean (which opened in November 2009). Focusing on the gallery of Ancient Cyprus, she explained something of the philosophy of the display and the stratagems employed to engage and orientate visitors. The museum has been designed to work as a whole, and the architecture as well as the individual objects are used to form links between galleries and guide visitors from one gallery to the next. Some deliberately 'theatrical' displays are used to capture the visitors' attention, encouraging them to explore groups of objects in greater depth. At the same time, many galleries have key objects on open display in the centre of the room, so that visitors making a quick tour of the museum can get an impression of the subject of the room from a small selection of objects. Crucial to the visitor experience of the displays are the orientation galleries on each floor, which combine objects and stories from all the areas covered. Dr Walker pointed out how people responsible for bringing the objects into the Ashmolean were emphasised and celebrated in the new displays. Prominent among these figures were Sir Arthur Evans for his work on Crete, and Sir John Myers for Cyprus. She was also very frank about a few aspects of the new design that she felt had not worked so well, such as the high-level projections of slide shows, and the problems of labelling object-rich displays.

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The Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Anna Trofimova then talked on Redisplaying Greece and Rome at the Hermitage Museum. At the Hermitage, 15 antiquities galleries have been redisplayed since 1998 and Dr Trofimova has played a leading role in this process. The issues she faced were fascinatingly different from those encountered by the Ashmolean curators with their brand-new building. The historic architecture and decoration of the Hermitage are of outstanding importance and demand to be preserved in their own right. Both are extremely ornate, and it would be incongruous simply to insert modern showcases in the galleries.

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A refurbished gallery at the Hermitage

So re-installation has involved painstaking research into the original decorative schemes and, wherever possible, the original designs of the architect Leo von Klenze have been restored, and the original showcases have been retrieved from storage and refurbished, or else copied. This approach gives the Hermitage a unique character and identity, and visitors cannot fail to be impressed and delighted by the grandeur of the galleries. However, it is not always easy to prevent the objects from being overwhelmed by their surroundings. Inserting contemporary information provision into such amazing and historic settings is also very challenging, and Dr Trofimova and her colleagues have worked hard to make a variety of forms of information available to visitors.

Timothy Potts and Lucilla Burn then joined the two speakers for a discussion with the audience. A range of issues was covered. Key issues discussed included questions about the museums' target audiences, and what consultation there had been in deciding what sort of information to provide. It was agreed that a range of information provision 'options' worked best, with gallery information just one of a range of options. Further information should be available in other formats, including online. It was also conceded that it was impossible to please everyone all the time, and that visitor expectations were not static but subject to constant change and revision, as were standards of display.

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Our new Greek and Roman gallery

In the Antiquities galleries Marr Grieve offered A Visitor's Perspective on the new Greek and Roman room. He explained that visitors with no prior or specialist knowledge can feel confused and need some secure points on which to base their understanding of the displays: the map and chronological timeline incorporated in the new display provided this. In general he found the layout and labelling of the new gallery worked well - he liked the use of numbering, and 'gateway object' system of labelling. He suggested it was useful to have 'real people' presenting objects in the gallery, as live conversations could lead in a variety of directions, unlike the static written words of a label or panel. In future he would like to see more short publications of star objects or general guides to the collection.

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Sarah Burles teaching in the new gallery

Sarah Burles moved participants into the Egyptian galleries, to sit at the feet of Ramesses III and get an impression of some of the methods she and her colleagues use to engage school or adult groups. In her presentation, Antiquities for All, she explained how through questioning her audience about a particular object, and discussing possible answers, she guides them to a basic understanding of what it was for. She makes connections between past and present by showing that ancient people - whether Greeks or Egyptians - had many of the same needs and feelings as us. She also stresses that the vast majority of the people of the past are nameless, not pharaohs, emperors or heroes, but that we can still try to reconstruct aspects of their lives. To demonstrate her methods she divided the seminar participants into groups and gave each a sheet of questions relating to the carving and transport of the coffin lid of Ramesses to discuss. Lively conversations ensued and everyone felt very 'engaged', thus vindicating her approach!