100-year-old Displays and Dilemmas: The Archaeology of the Museum

10 minute read

The Stores Move team opens and unpacks boxes on a daily basis; each giving us a precious glimpse into the past. In fact, we’re often lucky enough to see multiple layers of history nestled alongside each other thanks to the inclusion of things like excavation labels, research notes, drawings, publications, old newspapers and other ephemera. Each of these speaks to a moment of interaction with the object, either physically or intellectually. Sometimes they feel almost intimate and allow a feeling of real connection, for example revealing the initials of an excavator or the exact date when an object was unearthed.  

Frequently, there are also remnants of historic museum displays. Through these we can begin to build a picture of what the museum looked like in years gone by and how visitors to the museum might have thought about the past. Some objects still bear traces of the way they were displayed, such as copper wire historically used for suspension, copper brackets used to fix heavier objects to walls (Fig. 1), Perspex (clear plastic) mounts (Fig.2) or even complete wooden display panels with a range of objects affixed to them.  

The boxes in which the objects are stored often contain historic display labels, handwritten in elegant copper plate or calligraphic script. Many of these labels are written on recycled pieces of card; we’ve seen invites to balls, personal stationary, calling cards and lecture announcements. This might make you think the museum was ahead of the curve in its drive to recycle, but in fact this is a reminder that paper was rationed in the mid 1940s due to the Second World War. 

Figure 1. Historic copper alloy mounting bracket attached to a wooden crossbow. MAA 1922.1169.

Figure 2. A comb and two pieces of iron mounted on Perspex with a historic display label. MAA 1950.22 B.1, 1950.22 B.2 and 1950.22 B.3.

A historic display of grave goods 

A perfect example of multiple objects being displayed together on a single historic panel is the collection of grave goods excavated from Beit Shemesh, Israel (Fig. 3). The panel is roughly square and covered in a specific patterned paper which was used throughout the museum in the early 20th century. It’s likely this display was put together in the same year the objects were acquired by the museum (1924), and they have remained in this arrangement for almost 100 years.  

In the bottom right corner, the handwritten label gave details about the provenance of the objects including the site name in use at the time of excavation (Ain Shems). As an interesting aside, this is believed to be the handwriting of Cyril Fox, author of The Archaeology of the Cambridge Region and the archaeologist celebrated in MAA’s current exhibition, Beneath Our Feet. At the top, the board was labelled with its accession number, 1924.815 A-Z. Additionally, letter suffixes were marked underneath most, but crucially not all, of the objects.  

Figure 3. A historic display board with 1924.815 A-Z mounted on it and a display label in the bottom right corner. MAA 1924.815 A-Z.

Making the objects more comfortable 

The first decision was whether to leave the objects mounted on the board or see if they could be easily removed. From a conservation perspective, the preference is usually to remove objects from their old display boards which are rarely made of conservation grade materials. Before removing anything, a photograph was taken of the historic display to act as a reference point. This is attached as a secondary photo to each database record for the group. 

Some of the objects had been adhered directly to the board; a conservator’s expertise would be required to remove those. Most of the objects though, were fixed in place using two or more small metal pins inserted through the back of the board and bent over to hold the object firmly in place. I spoke with Imogen Gunn, Collections Manager for Archaeology (Stores Move), and she confirmed she was happy for me to detach what I could do safely. The remainder would be left for a conservator to remove in the future. 

I must admit, removing these objects from the board was stressful. They are delicate, many of them being made of faience or corroded metal. Some of the pins were corroded and very stiff, so it was a long and slow process of gently trying to pry them away from the objects and to release them without damage. Some of the items retain small marks from where the pins were in contact with them for so many years. The bead marked H on the board had been pinned too tightly for the last 100 years and, since it is made from a layered stone, a small amount of it flaked off when it was released. These fragments were bagged and are being stored with the bead in case they can be used for future analysis.  

Figure 4. Bracelet or string of beads 1924.815 Q.1, detached from the display board. MAA 1924.815 Q.1.

Documentation hurdles  

1924.815 A-Z originally all shared a single database record and a single catalogue card. It’s quite common for groups of objects to share a single record and, historically, it wouldn’t have been particularly problematic. Our modern database, however, is set up to record information specific to each individual object, including their storage locations, references or images in academic texts, research comments and so on. Objects become infinitely more searchable, and therefore visible, when they have individual records, and they can also be used in a much more flexible manner. As part of the Stores Move Project, we try to ensure that shared records like this are split, and each object is recorded individually.  

In this case, working out which object was which required quite a lot of head scratching and referring to various historic documents! The catalogue card gave a list of the objects along with their suffixes, but they weren’t in alphabetical order and when they had been transcribed onto the database record in the past, some errors had been introduced. After working through those errors, we found that three of the objects which were listed on the catalogue card were not on the board (although there was a shadow where 1924.815 W was likely originally adhered).  

The catalogue card described 1924.815 K as a ‘bronze ring and blue glass bead’ but although a ring on the board was marked K, there was no sign of a blue bead with it. The published excavation report included a black and white plate with some of the objects, but this was only helpful to a limited extent. In addition to the three missing objects, we also found that we had three extra ones (sadly not the same!).  

Unfortunately, since the original cataloguer had decided to assign letter suffixes (which are naturally limited to 26 options), we had to get a little creative with our solution. First, we decided to make the assumption that all of the pieces attached to the board were from the same context and originally belonged to the Accession entry of 1924.815 A-Z. Where we had extra objects we tried to group them with similar objects, for example documenting the extra faience pieces under the same letter suffix as their neighbour, resulting in 1924.815 G.1-3. In this way, each individual piece was assigned its own record, along with a new description. 

Figure 5. Imogen Gunn, Collections Manager for Archaeology (Stores Move), writing on a layer of acid free tissue. The table compares the database record, catalogue card and Plate of objects in Mackenzie, Duncan. (1913). ‘The Tombs of Beth-Shemesh’. Palestine Exploration Fund Annual, vol. 2. pp. 40-92. Plate: XLIII.23. On the left are the objects removed from the display board, with the board below.

Photography and packing 

The next stage was photography. Photographs of the objects which had been removed from the display board were easy to take. The Stores Move team uses small, pop-up light box studios for small objects and a table studio with backdrop for larger objects.  A scale bar and number cubes detailing the Accession number are always included in the primary image. Part of the reason for doing this is to ensure that objects can be easily identified in the future, even if they lose their labelling.  

For objects which were still adhered to the board, I took a close-up photo in the same way, placing the scale bar and Accession number as close as possible. To avoid future confusion, I then edited the photos so that only the labelled object was shown in each. If you look closely at these photos, you might notice the slight mismatch in background pattern where I’ve edited it (Fig. 6). After I’d done this, I stuck labels onto the board clearly indicating which suffixes belonged to each object (Fig. 7). The hope is that future collections staff will have a much easier time!  

Figure 6. A documentation photograph of 1924.815 G.1, a faience poppy head bead. The areas inside the dashed red line have been edited to hide objects adhered to the board next to the bead. MAA 1924.815 G.1.

The last thing to do was to repack the objects for safe transport and longterm storage. For the objects which had been removed from the board, this involved putting them in clear plastic boxes, known as crystal boxes. These boxes are lined with jiffy (a thin layer of foam) and the object is nestled inside a small puff of acid free tissue. Sometimes we also use a small ziplock bag if the object is in a fragile state, and we want to make sure flaking bits are kept together. Since we were unable to remove some of the objects from the display board, and many of these were corroded pieces of iron, this also had to be packed into a large ziplock bag and placed at the top of the box where nothing else would rest on it. 

Figure 7. The historic display board for 1924.815 A-Z, with only adhered objects remaining. Each of these is marked with a label showing the correct suffix.

What’s next?  

This particular group of objects presented several challenges. Firstly, the historic mounting with pins which we were able to safely reverse; secondly, the lack of clarity within the documentation, and limitations placed on us by the original use of letter suffixes; and thirdly, the adhered objects which we couldn’t detach and had to process in a slightly different way.  

Without the evidence of the historic mounting, we wouldn’t have been able to say for certain whether the objects had ever been displayed. Due to the very distinctive patterned paper, we can start to build a picture of which objects might have been on display at the same time in the museum’s history. We gain a glimpse into display practices of the past, including the use of adhesive to mount objects directly to the display board, a practice which is very much not acceptable today! 

Still hungry for more? 

If you’re interested in finding more objects which have been on display, head over to our online portal. You can search for objects currently on display by selecting the tick box on the right-hand side. Searching for objects which have been displayed historically is a little harder, but you can find many of them by doing a general text search for ‘display’ and scrolling down to find the Context (display) entry in the text. You can also try a general text search for ‘perspex’ which will bring up many objects which were historically mounted.  

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