Are museums just collections of things?

Public puzzlement over an exhibit at the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden leads me to be invited to another exhibition in Amsterdam.

Written by Josho Brouwers on

On 14 September, I visited the new exhibition on the Middle Ages at the National Museum of Antiquities (RMO for short) here in Leiden. I was struck by how old-fashioned the exhibit was. There were plenty of display cases filled with objects – things seemingly devoid of any context. One in particular struck me: a case with spearheads and axe heads, arranged in a way that must have seemed aesthetically pleasing to whoever arranged the objects like this.

It was utterly baffling to me: what is the point of these objects, setup in a way that has nothing to do with the items in question? I was so surprised that I tweeted a picture of the exhibit and asked, “When will museums be more than collections of things?” Of course, I should have made clear that with “museums” I mostly mean “archaeological museums” (in this case). I don’t think that was particularly clear considering some of the responses that I got. One point I tried to raise, within the 140-character limit, was that I believe firmly that archaeological museums should strive to be more than just collections of objects.

An archaeological museum should be accessible to as wide an audience as possible, and therefore these objects must be provided with context. After all, the point of an archaeological excavation is not primarily to retrieve things, but to understand how those things got to be there, what their function was, how they were made and used – in other words, the objects are merely stepping stones on our way to (re)constructing the past. (And I would hasten to add that there’s more to what an archaeological museum should do, i.e. effectively bridge the past and the present, and make it about the discipline; but that’s something for the future.)

Yet, in many archaeological museums, objects are treated as pieces of art would be in a gallery or art museum, as if they are significant on their own. Of course, some objects might be interesting in and of themselves, as objects d’art: Greek painted fine ware, for example (even though that doesn’t begin to tell the whole story). But on the other hand, Greek vases also tell us things beyond the object itself. For example, an Athenian vase recovered from a rich grave near a Greek town in Sicily can tell us about the people who made it, traded or transported it, and the nature and time of its deposition provide valuable information.

An invitation to a new exhibition

My tweets are also posted on my Facebook profile. Wim Hupperetz, the director of the Allard Pierson Museum, saw the post and invited me to attend the opening, last Tuesday, of the new Keys2Rome exhibition there in Amsterdam.

Keys2Rome is an exhibition on the Roman Empire that has opened not just at the Allard Pierson Museum, but also in museums in Rome, Sarajevo, and Alexandria. The opening was preceded by a number of lectures, the first of which was given by the director.

Wim Hupperetz explained that Keys2Rome, for the Allard Pierson Museum, replaced the old permanent exhibition of Roman antiquities. He stressed that it shouldn’t be considered ‘permanent’, but rather ‘flexible’: the museum should be more similar to a lab with experiments being run continually, and the curators should have the freedom to re-arrange the exhibition whenever necessary. The museum needed to move away from static exhibitions to more dynamic ones.

He made some great points in his lecture that seemed to answer most of my concerns when it comes to archaeological museums. He pointed out that the exhibition is a reflection of our modern perspective and the ideas of the museum staff. He stressed that the collection needed to tell a story, to have meaning. (I would add that it should also be made clear how that story came about, and whether the meaning is something we attach or is somehow related to the objects’ perceived use in the past.)

Importantly, the museum, he explained, had to move away from object-focused exhibits, to ones that were context-focused. An object cannot be understood in isolation, without context. One interesting element that he pointed out was the value of immersion, of offering exhibits that allowed the visitor to be transported back to the past.

Use of modern technology

Technology plays an important role in the new exhibition. Each visitor is given a key card. You touch in at the start of your trip through the department of Roman antiquities and at key intervals, you can swipe the card below a small touchscreen panel to bring up information about three separate objects.

In order to emphasize the breadth of the Roman Empire, there is in these instances always one object for each of three regions: the Low Countries, the Mediterranean, and finally Egypt. Each object has a description written from the point of view of an inhabitant of the Roman Empire, and some objects have also been rendered on the computer in three dimensions and can be rotated freely, allowing a good view of the object from all sides.

When a visitor is done with the exhibition, his or her key card is handed back in, after which the information on it is downloaded and used for analytical purposes. This way, the museum staff will be able to determine which exhibits drew the most attention, what kinds of things engaged people more, what worked and what didn’t. For me, for example, it wasn’t immediately obvious that you could swipe down to reveal more information – such as 3D models and videos – on a particular object.

There was also a model of the Ara Pacis, shown above, where you could push buttons to reveal more detailed information on the monument on a separate screen. This drew quite a lot of attention, as most interactive things in a museum do. I wonder, though, if the effect of the actual object is not lost a little bit by relegating details to a small screen.

Personally, I often don’t have a lot of patience to watch videos in a museum, and I spend much of my time already staring at screens. Nevertheless, the content displayed on the touch screens seems designed primarily to appeal to younger visitors, and I imagine they will be successful among school kids.

There was one instance, shown above, where technology seemed to hinder more than help. This decorative object was once suspended between two columns. There was a sensor in front of the glass with a sign that showed a hand with an extended index finger and the indication that one should hold the hand about 25cm above the sensor. By pointing, a small circle would be projected on the object that revealed what the original colour of the object was. This proved extremely fidgety, however, and the slightest of movements set the little circle of light careening around the object.

This is one instance where I think it would have been better to just install a button that, when pressed and held, would activate the projector and show the entire object with colour. There were two ladies behind us while we were struggling with the projector that complained that they couldn’t get it to function at all. I have no doubt, however, that this will be solved at some point.

More than a collection of things?

The bulk of the new exhibition consisted of display cases. There were many of them and they were all filled to the brim with objects. In fact, I think most of them were probably a little too full. Previously, the objects had been scattered throughout the museum, arranged first by geographical provenance and then displayed in chronological order. Hence, some of the objects now included in this new exhibition had previously found a home in the department of Egyptian antiquities, where they were shown in between areas displayed Late Period objects and Coptic artefacts.

Within the Keys2Rome exhibition, these disparate objects, all unified by the fact that they dated to the period of Roman occupation in their respective regions, are organized thematically. Hence, there are display cases on the army, on personal care and appearance, entertainment, and so on. Below is the display case labelled ‘religion’: it features some statuettes and other objects.

Organizing the material thematically is, I think, a step in the right direction. But the amount of information offered is limited. Each of the objects is provided with a customary number, and we can read on the panel what each object is supposed to be, how old it is, and where it comes from. But simply grouping these objects together as part of a single theme does not by itself make the overall display more informative. Who made them? Where were they originally displayed or kept? How were these different objects used?

Some answers are provided by the information given via the touch screens, but this is generally focused on particular objects in separate display cases. Some cases have a larger text that provides more of a context, but I still feel that the exhibition is only partially successful in moving away from the objects themselves. One thing that would have improved the exhibition, I think, would have been to display fewer objects.

Providing context and meaning

The initial tweet and the brief Twitter and Facebook discussions that followed, and which ultimately led to this article, make it seem like I was very negative about the National Museum of Antiquities (RMO) in Leiden. But, as I tried to point out at some point on Facebook, the RMO has done a lot of stuff right, too. At least, in my opinion.

For example, I love the display above. Ignore the solitary vase on a pedestal or the sign on the left that was put there to allow space for workers to take down an exhibition in nearby room. What I am interested here is this exhibit of Athenian tombstones. I think it’s nearly perfect, not in the least in that it conveys a great deal of information visually: through the use of the backdrop, the positioning of the relief panels, and the reconstructed grave and display of minor objects in the middle.

What makes this display great is the fact that it is visually appealing and informative even without text. You really get a good idea of where these objects were originally set up and what their purpose was: in other words, the context in which these objects were used is immediately apparent. These tomb stones were arranged in cemeteries outside the city walls, and set up in such a way as to be seen easily by travellers heading into town along the major roads and smaller paths.

Above is a close-up of the central display case. Below the level of the tombstone is a reconstructed grave. It is a valuable, because it reveals the context in which intact vases are found. We see the bones of the deceased and little pots scattered around his body. Above the grave is a display filled with objects that, because of the nature of the display as a whole, we immediately associate with the grave. No text could convey more clearly that the whiteground lekythoi or the little stone panel with a picture of a deceased person, were made specifically for use in a funerary context.

This display makes great use of original objects. But you need not use original objects at all. Sometimes, a model of a particular structure can be equally as enlightening. The Allard Pierson Museum has a few of these, including a great model of the pyramids at Giza. The RMO has a wonderful model of the house of Menander in Pompey, shown below.

This is the next best thing to actually visiting the site. In fact, I would argue it is almost better, since the house has been reconstructed to look as it probably did when it was still in use. This model of a rich house conveys more information on what a Roman house was like than any number of display cases filled with artefacts ever could.

But look at the exhibit above. This is located next to the model of the house of Menander. It is a collection of objects that had once decorated the interiors of Roman houses. The background paintings give an idea of how the Romans decorated their walls, and the paintings on the ground give an idea of the variety of pavements; a mosaic is neatly integrated into the platform. Again, text is limited and largely superfluous in this case: we immediately get a sense, just from looking, as to what these objects are, how they were used, where they were originally kept, and so on.

The Egyptian department of the RMO is one of the foremost collections of Egyptian objects in the world. It was relatively recently renewed. I like this department, too, because it does what Wim Hupperetz emphasized in his lecture: it allows the visitor to be immersed, to be transported back to the past. Above is a picture of a tomb from Egypt, brought almost intact to the Netherlands. You can walk round it and go inside of it. Again, this is the next best thing to actually visiting Egypt itself.

Of course, not every museum is able to do stuff like this. But you can still do a lot even with relatively minor things. The key, I think, is to try and keep everything as visual – or as experiential, if you like – as possible. Have a look at this map from the RMO, for example:

Even without reading any additional text, it is immediately obvious what this map represents: sources for particular types of minerals and rocks in Egypt. The curators went one step further than simply listing the names, which would have been meaningless if you are not interested in minerals at all. They included actual samples of the material mentioned. Visitors immediately get a sense for what these things look like. This display is informative, without the need for excessive verbiage.

The road ahead

Summing up, I think the new Keys2Rome exhibition at the Allard Pierson Museum is a step in the right direction and definitely worth a visit. Of course, there is, I feel, room for improvement. Organizing the objects thematically is good, but grouping objects together in and of itself is not informative. I think an extra step is needed to really immerse the visitor into the past, and I don’t think modern technology is even necessary in this case.

Let’s take one example: the display case entitled ‘Entertainment’, a photograph of which is shown above. There are no visual clues as to what we are looking at aside from the objects themselves, which are crowded together in a small space. Having to look at the top of the case to see what this collection is about reveals a reliance on text that I think is not – or rather in my opinion ought not to be – necessary.

Once you know what the display case is about, you can sort of make out what most of these objects are supposed to represent. The boar probably represents the hunt (even though this tells us little about the object itself), and the assortment of small bottles and strigiles in the top right are undoubtedly connected to athletics.

I think with some minor changes you could make this information more readily apparent. Why not make a display case about sports and put an illustration in the background that offers a reconstruction of a gymnasium? In that way, it is immediately apparent what the display is about without even reading a single letter. Similarly, a display case devoted to the hunt could feature men on horseback chasing a board. (Even though, in this case, I think the theme of the object has been conflated with the actual purpose of the object itself, which must have been decorative and thus used in an entirely different context.)

Naturally, space was undoubtedly a restraint at the Allard Pierson Museum. Originally, the building housed a bank and the internal space is not optimized for use as a museum. But this raises another question: do all of these objects have to be on display? Again, I think a smaller collection would have been better. Fewer objects, more visual information would have improved the exhibition greatly, to my mind.

Having said all that, I did enjoy the Keys2Rome exhibition very much, and it was interesting to see these objects, which I have seen frequently in the last twenty years or so, arranged differently. I think the use of technology is innovative and I am keen to see how the museum will put the data obtained from the key cards to use. I am also aware of Wim Hupperetz’s desire to treat the museum more as a laboratory, with ample room for experimentation.

Already in his own lecture, he pointed out that some things might not work and would need to be improved, and he emphasized the importance of continual self-reflection. In that regard, the Allard Pierson Museum is undoubtedly at the forefront of archaeological museums, blazing a new trail through uncharted territory. As with all pioneers and innovators, the road ahead may not be smooth, but I also think the Allard Pierson Museum is an institution to keep an eye on.

This article is part of the series, Ramblings on museums.