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Thematic Collecting

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Greek Mythology

Thematic Collecting: Staff Presentation 23rd June 2015

Rachel with specimen lupin she collected for the project in Iceland
Rachel with specimen lupin she collected for the project in Iceland

The Collections Team has been working on the thematic collecting project for pretty much the last year and yesterday we had an opportunity to give a presentation about the interviews we’ve been filming at one of the staff briefings that are held at the Museum.

By way of introduction to our work I spoke about what is meant by thematic or relational collecting. Essentially it is the name given to a new approach to collecting which acknowledges that in this time of austerity the Museum can no longer afford to collect comprehensively. Focusing on particular themes, such as ‘migration’ or ‘water’, that are of great relevance to the public, allows the Museum to continue collecting whilst using its limited resources more effectively. The crucial thing is that the Museum should be seen to be collecting, no small achievement when many museums have ceased because collecting is seen as an indulgence in a time of recession or austerity.

If one of the definitions of a museum is that it is a collecting institution, then what does it become if it ceases to collect? Manchester Museum Director, Nick Merriman, has discussed thematic collecting in a number of papers and conference presentations, most recently at ‘Refloating the Ark’ and argues that museums reduce their potential in the future when they stop collecting. Some museums have had to cease collecting because of changes in international legislation. For instance the Petrie Museum in London, have done some excellent work in developing relationships with Sudanese and Egyptian communities and interpreting the collection in innovative and exciting ways. Elsewhere anthropologists facing similar challenges have filmed interviews with native people speaking about objects in museum collections, which are of mutual benefit both to the museum and to the community.

Relational collecting provides something of a model for the Collections Team, allowing us to focus on particular themes in a multi-disciplinary way, whilst drawing  on the testimony of academics and members of the public, and using digital technology to record their opinions. In this sense the digital record may be as much what is collected as the object itself.

For the purpose of the presentation we concentrated on the theme of migration. Curator of Palaeontology, David Gelsthorpe talked about an interview he recorded recently with a member of the public about the discovery of a deer in the North West. Hopefully in the fullness of time the Museum will acquire the skeleton, at which point the personal account of the circumstances of discovery will make it of even greater relevance to visitors and to our successors who will find a detailed  account of the circumstances of acquisition. The context of  objects in museum collections may sometimes be lacking because it was acquired many  years ago before the introduction of professional standards of documentation, or because the thing in question was acquired at auction, or because it was a heirloom given to the museum when the family had only a hazy memory of how it had been acquired.

Rachel spoke about her and David’s research visit to Iceland and showed clips from an interview with an Icelandic expert talking about the introduction of plant species in the volcanic landscape to fix minerals in the soil. As we know the history of humans giving a helping hand to relocate new species in a different environment does not always end happily.

Campbell and Henry were unable to attend but kindly provided slides about interviews they had filmed. Campbell has been out to Egypt recently and interviewed members of the Egyptian antiquities service. He is interested in the movement of Egyptian artefacts outside the country in antiquity and in the modern period.

I showed a clip from my interview with Dr Emma Stafford of University of Leeds talking about a vase in the collection with a picture of Herakles and the connection with Marian Maguire’s work which relocates the Greek hero in New Zealand.

I finished the presentation by pointing to interviews on the theme of water, which were in preparation. The response from colleagues was very supportive and we welcomed their comments in helping us to evaluate this preliminary stage of the thematic collecting project.

Thematic Collecting Presentation to staff 23rd June 3015
Thematic Collecting Presentation to staff 23rd June 3015

 

 

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Thematic Collecting: Water – Springs in Stoupa, Peloponnese

Stoupa in the Peloponnese
Stoupa in the Peloponnese

Christine and I have just got back from a relaxing holiday in the beautiful resort of Stoupa in the southern Peloponnese in Greece. At the Welcome party to provide holiday makers with information about the resort and its attractions, our host Mary talked about the fresh water springs in Stoupa. When you are on holiday in Greece you are often recommended to buy bottled water because the water in the taps has a higher mineral content and it can upset your tummy if you’re not used to it but you don’t have to buy bottled water for drinking in Stoupa because they have fresh water springs literally ‘on tap’.

Spring water on tap in Stoupa
Spring water on tap in Stoupa

Water falls on the Taygetos mountains to the north of Stoupa as rain or as snow during the winter and makes its way through the limestone until it rises to the ground surface in the resort. There are places in the resort where the spring water has been tapped and you can fill your bottles with it for free. This public amenity is both healthy for consumers and good for the environment because it avoids plastic bottles going into land fill. There are also springs in the bay at Stoupa and they look a little bit like whirlpools on the surface of the sea. When the springs occur in the sea they are known as ‘glyphathes’ (pronounced glee-far-theys). The amount of water is quite considerable and we were told that there was sufficient water to supply the whole of Messenia in the western Peloponnese. This does have the unfortunate effect of making the water in the bay a bit colder for bathers. We did hear about one spring close to Kalogria bay used by intrepid Dutch bathers who steeled themselves for the cold water in the sea by immersing themselves in the spring beforehand. Apparently if you could brave the icy flow the sea was a doddle…

Spring in Stoupa Bay
Spring in Stoupa Bay

Finding out about the springs and seeing them in the bay struck a chord with me because of the thematic collecting project about water at Manchester Museum and I made some enquiries to see if Mary would be willing to be interviewed about them on camera. Naturally I was delighted when Mary not only agreed but asked Dmitri at the diving school in nearby Kalogria to take part too. Dmitri had dived on the site of the springs and was happy to talk about them on camera.

Interviewing Mary and Dmitri about the springs
Interviewing Mary and Dmitri about the springs

Dmitri told us that the flow of water from the springs was so strong that it would push the divers back, and because it was fresh water it reduced visibility at the boundary with the salt water in the sea. It doesn’t seem to have any effect on the fish or other wildlife. As an added bonus Mary and her husband John kindly took me and Christine out in their boat to film one of the glyphathes and they really are spectacular. I’ve been working since I got back on editing the filmed interview with Mary and Dmitri and hopefully shall be able to share some footage with readers in the not-too-distant future. As far as we were concerned it was one of the highlights of our holiday and we shall certainly go back. However, until the permissions are granted what better than to watch the Greek documentary (link below). Footage of the glyphathes or underwater springs showing the divers can be seen from 5.05 on the counter.

It crossed my mind that we might expect to find archaeological material associated with the springs but Dmitri told me they were of more interest to geologists than archaeologists and that dye testing had shown the water made the transit from mountain top to the sea in about a fortnight. The other thought I had was whether seeing the glyphathes in the bay had inspired any mythological tales. That’s something to look into separately and I’ll keep you posted.

Migration of Ideas: Herakles goes to New Zealand

In the first interview Dr Emma Stafford talks about Herakles, the famous hero from ancient Greek mythology, and discusses a Classical Greek vase  in Manchester Museum’s archaeology collection.

In the second interview Emma talks about artist Marian Maguire’s witty transposing of Herakles to New Zealand, where we discover he does not have things all his own way…

 

 

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