Thematic Collecting: Migration – a short interview with Alex Croom, Keeper of Archaeology at Tyne and Wear Museums and Archive Service, talking about the famous tombstone set up by Barates the Palmyran in memory of his British wife Regina. This film complements an interview with Raeef from South Shields who has dual Yemeni and British heritage.
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.
Earlier today David Gelsthorpe and I had the great pleasure of filming an interview with Dr Emma Stafford, Senior Lecturer in Classics at the University of Leeds on the subject of Herakles. Emma has research interests in ancient Greek religion, myth and Herakles and the Trojan War, and recently curated a temporary exhibition at Leeds Museums and Galleries about Herakles. “But what’s this got to do with migration?” I hear you ask. In this case Emma worked with prints from the talented New Zealand artist Marian Maguire, who has transposed Herakles to the incongruous setting of New Zealand.
Our interview began with Emma talking about a particularly handsome amphora in the archaeology collection which shows Herakles fighting a centaur, the half-man, half-horse composite from Greek mythology. The story behind this scene is a visit that Herakles made to his friend Pholus the centaurs. Pholus offered his guest some wine but the other centaurs smelt it and tried to gatecrash the party and Herakles took up his club to restore order (think have-a-go-hero beheads four…). On the pot in the first image above you can see the blood flowing where Herakles has wounded his centaur opponent. This was only one of many adventures that Herakles had. In fact he was set a series of twelve seemingly impossible challenges known as the Twelve Labours of Herakles in which, for example, he had to bring back Cerberus, the hound that guarded the gates of the Underworld, clean the stables of King Augeas, defeat the man-eating Stymphalian birds, capture the belt of Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons (see image above) and so on.
Marian Maguire has extended the adventures of Herakles by transplanting him to the other side of the world, New Zealand. This is quite a feat of the imagination, even for Herakles who is arguably one of the best-travelled heroes from ancient Greek mythology. Of course the challenges he faces in New Zealand are of a completely different nature though still comparable to those he faced in ancient Greece.
There is some wonderful tongue-in-cheek humour as Herakles fails to defeat the women of New Zealand in their campaign to have the right to vote. In fact the Antopodean Amazons were the first women in the world to get the vote. Herakles also fails to control the rabbit population. A hilarious print shows the hero waving his club ineffectually whilst two rabbits in the foreground do… well what rabbits do.
Herakles is almost always shown as he appears on some of the Greek vases in the Black Figure technique but he appears in a landscape that is unmistakably that of New Zealand. For example, we see him clearing the landscape or herding a less-than-formidable cow (so much for capturing the Cretan bull!) with Mount Taranaki in the background. It all seems as though the challenge has proved too much and that Herakles has got sucked into a life of mundane tasks that is at odds with his heroic status. In another print Herakles serves two immaculately dressed genteel European ladies who are taking tea in the bush, whilst a Maori looks on puzzled.
This is all great fun and of course what makes it possible is the transposition of a hero from Greek mythology into the incongruous setting of New Zealand on the other side of the world. The artistic imagination allows the juxtaposition of ideas that are challenging, stimulating, entertaining and thought-provoking. We are accustomed to talking about what happens when animals and birds migrate, and we can contrast the migration of peoples in the past and in the present, but Marian Maguire’s work shows what happens when the familiar Black Figure outline of Herakles migrates to the southern hemisphere. It’s Brian Murphy (of George and Mildred fame) on steroids. In this case the outcome is humorous but almost certainly the migration of some ideas caused as much damage as the introduction of invasive species like the Cane Toad in Australia and the Lionfish in the Caribbean, not to mention Mink and Japanese Knotweed in the UK.
This is one a number of interviews that members of the Collections Team are recording as part of the Thematic Collecting project. The edited interviews will be made available on YouTube and may result in the acquisition of objects for Manchester Museum and may lead to an exhibition. It strikes me that if Herakles going to New Zealand has any traction we ought to seriously consider acquiring one of Marian Maguire’s prints, but perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself…
My thanks to Dr Emma Stafford for giving up her time to give this interview for thematic collecting and to David Gelsthorpe for filming.