Musings from the English Countryside: Ashmolean Partner Placement (Amalia Kakissis, ITP 2018, Greece)
Written by Amalia Kakissis, Archivist, British School at Athens (ITP 2018)
On Monday 23 July, ITP Team Oxford – myself, Sarah Elsheekh (Sudan National Museum) and Rana Ramadan (Alexandria Museum) – took off to the English countryside with our lovely British Museum representative, Louise Ellis-Barrett (Ann el-Mokadem Librarian, Dept of Ancient Egypt and Sudan)!
We were met by Liam McNamara (Lisa and Bernard Selz Curator of Ancient Egypt and Sudan) and Paul Collins (Acting Keeper of Antiquities and Jaleh Hearn Curator for Ancient Near East) of the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, who were our magnificent hosts and mentors for the time in Oxford.
We got off to a spectacular start with a private tour of the Ashmolean Ancient World galleries by Liam and Paul. The Ashmolean is closed on Mondays (a practice which will change next year when they will open 7 days a week) so it felt like it was ALL OURS!!! Liam and Paul explained the complete refurbishment of the Ashmolean in 2009 and what challenges they have faced with the displays, materials in storage and finding a good balance with the University academic community since the Ashmolean is a part of the University of Oxford system and therefore emphasizes using the collection for teaching in a different way to other museums. We also met the very gracious Dr Xa Sturgis, Director of the Ashmolean Museum.
The lovely Susanne Woodhouse, Sackler Librarian, gave us a tour of the Sackler Library and showed us how to use all their amazing resources.
Afterwards we visited the quirky and traditionally displayed Museum of the History of Science which is housed in the building that was the FIRST Ashmolean opened in 1683 by Elias Ashmole, the English antiquary.
They have some amazing objects in there- like a camera obscura (first camera prototype) – which is the first I have ever seen in person!
This museum is slated for a redesign in the coming year so it will be interesting to come back and visit and see the changes.
Over the rainy weekend we went further afoot to Chastleton House and Garden, a National Trust property which had passed through the hands of the same family for about 400 years. It is a very unique place for many reasons but mostly because it has been purposely left in the level of deterioration in which it was acquired in 1991.
Then, most of our second-to-last day in Oxford was spent on ARCHIVES!! YAY! At the Griffith Institute, the leading Egyptology and Ancient Near East Study Centre, Francisco Bosch-Puche told us about the three major projects they run with their small staff: The Topographical Bibliography of Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphic Texts, Statues, Reliefs and Paintings, the Online Egyptological Bibliography (OEB), and the Griffith Institute Archive. He then showed us some of the most amazing archive material including some of the first rubbings of the Rosetta Stone, a panoramic drawing of Cairo made with a camera obscura (see above) and the notebooks of Howard Carter in which he wrote about his discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun!
Then it was back to the Ashmolean to see the equally impressive archive of Sir Arthur Evans, first excavator of the Minoan Palace at Knossos, Crete.
We also had great sessions with other members of the Ashmolean team. Sarah Casey (Digital Communications Officer) and Sarah Doherty (Public Engagement) spoke with us about the interesting ways they are promoting the events at the Ashmolean and how they are experimenting with new ways to engage the public, like their After Hours events.
We had a fascinating tour of the conservation studio with Alexandra Baldwin who showed us a narwhal horn, something we not only had never seen but didn’t even know existed! This rare object (a canine tooth from a medium-sized toothed whale that protrudes like a large ‘tusk’), usually housed in one of the Oxford colleges, will be used in the Ashmolean’s upcoming temporary exhibition Spellbound: Magic, Ritual & Witchcraft, as some people in the past associated these objects with unicorns.
We also had a very interesting discussion with Clare Flynn (Exhibition Designer) about reshaping one of the galleries in the NEW Ashmolean to represent the original Ashmolean and its collections, which were housed in what is now the Museum of the History of Science. Some very interesting and clever ideas about making this new space reflect the flavour of the ‘Old Museum’ but in a contemporary way.
We ended our fantastic ten-day stint at the Ashmolean with a couple of stops linked to Harry Potter… Firstly, a tour of Christ Church College with our wonderful hosts, Liam and Paul. Christ Church was founded in 1546 by King Henry VIII and now is a big tourist attraction thanks to the filming of Harry Potter on its grounds.
And then we ended our trip with the incomparable Pitt Rivers Museum where we saw the shrunken heads also used in the filming of Harry Potter and had some great discussions with Kelly Smith (Secondary, Further Education and Young People Officer) about the concept of the Pitt Rivers and ethical questions surrounding some of the objects.
Our time in Oxford gave us the chance to reflect on the things we have learned so far on the ITP programme, and assess them against a variety of different institutions in regional locations with different audiences, needs and resources. But the best perks of all were having new adventures, seeing new places and meeting new friends and colleagues!