Sunday, 27 February 2011

Old coins and dead Egyptians

It’s a funny old life being a museum curator.  I had a very long day in London the other day, getting up far too early to catch a train to get me to the British Museum for 9am.  The reason for this act of masochism was that I was attending a conference to celebrate the 150th birthday of the department of coins and medals (though I didn’t even get them a card – I’m a terrible guest!)  I have to say that it was worth the effort, with some very good papers on the history of the department and some of the current projects being undertaken in the UK and abroad.  The updates on British projects such as the Portable Antiquities Scheme and the progress the BM is making on putting more of its collections online were particularly interesting.

One thing that did make me and a few provincial colleagues smile, though, was the way that some of the senior BM curators were criticising the lack of specialist numismatic posts in some museums, and highlighting how important it is that major research projects continue to be carried out.  It seemed to us that that view is slightly out of touch with the reality most museums are facing, when curators of huge collections and entire education and outreach departments are being culled en masse because of government cuts.  The luxury of specialist numismatic curators with the time and resources to carry out personal research projects is long gone, and the BM may do well to reflect how lucky they are to still have that role at all.

Having said that, it was a stimulating discussion, and I returned to Lincoln bursting with enthusiasm and ideas for new ways to get all of the people of Lincolnshire crazy about ancient coins.

While I was at the BM, I took the opportunity to go and see their latest exhibition – ‘Book of the Dead’.  Now, I have to confess that despite being a history buff, the Egyptians have always left me slightly cold – maybe it was the whole brain out of the nose thing when I was a kid?  Anyway, as a fully paid up, card carrying member of the Museums Association, I can get into the BM’s exhibitions for free, and I’m never one to pass up a freebie.

As I went round, I realised that the thoughts going round my head were the same as when I had visited the last few BM blockbuster exhibitions.  The objects are as wonderful as you’d expect them to be, the interpretation is informative and well planned and the dome of the reading room makes for a beautiful setting.  It should combine to make the perfect experience, but somehow it doesn’t.  The popularity of the exhibitions means that the visitor experience is poor.  For me, things like the large crowds in front of every case, being hit in the face by some tourist’s rucksack, having some screaming kid push past you the wrong way, or simply just having to stand and wait as you can’t even ignore a case and move on as the throng have created a bottleneck - all combine to just make me want to get through and out again as quickly as possible – and meaning that I take very little enjoyment or knowledge out of the experience.  I fail to see how anybody else could either.  It’s like an inverse ratio – as popularity increases, enjoyment for the individual visitor decreases.

I think a large part of the problem with this exhibition is that a lot of the objects are papyrus, meaning that you need to be close to them to get any sense of their detail.  The last BM exhibitions I really enjoyed were Hadrian and the Terracotta Warriors, and I think it’s no coincidence that they contained larger objects that could be appreciated from a distance.  If I could find a time to see this one when it was quiet, I’m sure I’d come away with a far better impression.

I actually went into ‘Book of the Dead’ twice.  My first visit was during lunchtime, but I tried again after the conference before my late train home, at about 7 o’clock in the hope it would be quieter.  It was actually worse – even more visitors and a child with some clacking toy that its parents evidently enjoyed the sound of.

Ultimately it’s hard to see how the BM can change it – getting lots of people to come to an exhibition is a sign of success, and lord knows the heritage industry in England at the moment needs every good bit of press it can get.  I just hope the hoards of other tourists didn’t feel as disappointed as I did, and will continue to come back again and again – if only they could keep away when I’m there…

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