Public History and Ancient History: Is There a Need?

Hopefully this blog is more interesting and thought-provoking than another business-related post…

As part of my program, this semester I am taking an Ancient Egyptian history course (again).  The twist on the class, as opposed to most classes I took in my master’s program, is more of an emphasis on public history rather than academia.  Both are important and have their place, obviously. At MTSU, I’m lucky enough to have a great professor who recognizes the importance of public history, as well as the need in the Ancient history field for more a public historian approach.

To make the course possible at a PhD level (since it involves a lecture portion to a group of undergraduates), I meet outside of regular class time with the professor, and I have extra readings.  The context of the history that I am getting is great, and we have great academic discussions.  Today (as well as in the past, but today in particular), we had a great discussion on exhibits of ancient cultures and artifacts.

What's up guys? I didn't really look like this, btw.

Have you ever been to an exhibit of Egyptian antiquities?  Greek or Roman or Mesopotamian or Chinese or anything?  What did you notice about those exhibits?  How are they presented?  How could they be improved?

These are some of the questions we discussed today.  In general, exhibits about Ancient Egypt seem impersonal and almost mystical.  Of course people love Ancient Egypt, for many reasons.  They love the gold and weirdness and the mysterious people who lived such a long time ago.  But is there any reason that the Egyptian people should be viewed as that far removed from ourselves?  Egyptians got sick and had marital problem and did laundry and even had fingernails and hair, just like us.  Wouldn’t it be beneficial to present that to people, so that they can experience Egypt or other ancient cultures themselves??

This reminded me of the Discovery Room at the Pink Palace (may it rest in peace, since it is a really sore subject for another blog at another time), and the exhibits that were displayed in the room at the time of the IMAX feature on Ancient Egypt.  There were hands on things to do in there that related to Egypt!  One could smell the smells of Egypt, such as frankincense or myrrh,  write in hieroglyphs (obligatory), and see a reproduction of a tomb wall, complete with paint.  People were able to interact with elements of Egyptian culture to an extent.

What can the big exhibits at the big museums with the big artifacts from ancient history do to make the presentation less cold and more vibrant and alive??   My professor and I came up with some pretty cool ideas (no bodies under the famous Berlin Nefertiti bust, sorry).   Some ideas could be expensive or complicated, though effective, while others really aren’t that hard to do.

In front of a reproduction in the aforementioned Discovery Room (RIP)

One interesting idea is to have a wall sections that is generally displayed as-is.  Many people think of the Egyptians as stone like, carved in stone and colorless and lifeless.  However, the walls were actually very bright (gaudy?) and painted and vibrant.  How difficult would it be to somehow project a light onto that wall that showed the colors and how it would have looked to the people?  I’m sure it could be done.  We’re pretty smart people, out here in the museum field after all, right?

Another interesting comparison was made during our discussions of intermediate periods in Egyptian history.  For all of you non-Egyptologists who may be interested, traditionally, intermediate periods (as opposed to kingdoms i.e. Old Kingdom, New Kingdom…) were seen as times of chaos and breakdown.  Sources from the ancient Egyptians, usually written after the fact, support this theory of horrible things happening: famines, death, foreigners, etc.   Primary sources from the intermediate periods themselves speak of things being in a state of breakdown, but not to the extent that later sources do.  There are several reasons for this, such as legitimization of the new king and a show of power of the new guy as compared to the previous rulers.

Migrant Mother, Dorthea Lange

We discussed that an interesting comparison might be made among the intermediate periods, sometimes called Dark Ages, and the medieval “Dark Ages” or even the Great Depression that followed the stock market crash in 1929 in the United States.  Maybe a comparison with the current “economic crisis” could be made that people could relate to.  Both my professor and I had an interesting take on the Great Depression, as we heard from our grandparents who lived through it.  Her family was in rural Texas during the depression; she heard several times from her family that it was “just like the grapes of wrath.”  How much did popular culture and hindsight play in the creating of the public memory?  Was it really so bad??  My grandfather remembers the Depressionas a child in the suburbs of Boston.  He told me that the one thing that sticks out in his memory is the question asked whenever friends were met on the street: “Are you working?”  This is a personal memory, of course, so it is not so questionable as a memory placed there by popular culture… but even in the time of the Great Depression, pictures, such as the one to the right, were staged and published!  What effect did this have on the people who were experiencing the Depression head on?  I realize this is a long tangent, but can it not be related to the Egyptians?  Were they experiencing many of the same things?

This is the mummy of Seti I - how real does he look? Don't you know someone who could look like this today?

My professor also told me a story about a time when she was excavating in Egypt.  She excavated an entire road in a village; once she was finished, she was the first person to walk that road in thousands of years.  How powerful is that??  Can’t that feeling be conveyed (to an extent) to people at an exhibit?

Of course, there is always the gross stuff that you think of that sticks with you… diseases and violence.  At one site she excavated, a mummy’s foot stuck out of the ground, and workers kept tripping over it.  Once they removed it from the ground, the archaeologists discovered that the knee was still attached, and it creaked and made a noise much like anyone’s might.   How can this be presented to people, without totally freaking them out/being accepted.  These were real people!

See? I was so amazed I took a picture of his toes.

One thing that personally always stuck with me, as I visited the McClung Museum at the University of Tennessee, is the presentation of mummies.  Of course, this is becoming controversial (a la NAGPRA to an extent), so it gets a bit tricky as well… However, whenever my friend and I would go to see Gilbert (as we named him) at the museum, I always noticed that you could see his toenails sticking out of the end of his wrappings.  His toenails!!  See it over there??  Again, I made the connection that he was once a person, but do others??  Do we present the Egyptians or ancients in this way?

Battlefields in America often focus on the logistics and the outcomes of a certain battle in relation to the bigger picture… but there are always some aspects of human elements as well.  Cannonballs stuck in trees or in houses show the impact that the war had on people.  On a visit to Chickamauga as an undergraduate, I remember a display that was basically text on the wall that had been taken from a soldier’s diary which spoke of the atrocities and realities of war (such as eyeballs hanging out of sockets and field surgeries).  Again, this is gross, but it definitely stuck with me and made me realize, “oh, there were actually thousands of people who died here and even more who were affected.”

Impressive, certainly. But can you make a personal connection?

Surely there are innumerable more ways to link the ancients with the present (and surely less grotesque ways as well).  The more I think about it the more convinced I become that this is something that needs to be addressed!  Where is the human elements in many of the ancient-related exhibits today??  Can’t we relate better to something if we understand it in a context related to our own world-view?

Additionally, there is a TON of room in Egypt itself for public history.  There is still a very colonial point of view in the country, and of course there are tons of political and religious things that play into the presentation of antiquities.  It’s really complicated; however, there is still a need for some sort representation.  Bottom line: there is a place, and possibly even a need, within the Ancient History field for public historians.

Please feel free to offer comments on any exhibits related to ancient cultures that you have visited.  What could be improved?  Did you feel any connection to the actual people, or just an awe of their feats and elite class (or nothing at all)?  I’m looking at you, former classmates and professors at the University of Memphis!!!

14 replies to “Public History and Ancient History: Is There a Need?

  1. Personal connections in any type of museum make things more enjoyable and memorable. In most any art museum there is a place to do your own art. Libraries (book museums in a way) allow you to check books out. Aquariums and zoos allow us to pet and interact with the animals. Historical museums though leave us wanting. We see items of history but often we have no way to connect to these things or know what to do. A place for us to connect to the past. See what is similar now to what happened hundreds to thousands of years ago. Exhibits can get us close to that point and can put us close to a connection but somewhere there has to be a human element to these distant past events.

  2. I think the biggest problem here is that it is intrinsically difficult to create a personal connection with anything in the past farther than recently (relative to the specific individual you might be trying to spark a connection for.) Unlike an aquarium letting you pet the fish (that you can already see right in front of you is alive and well and swimming like a fish), it is (nearly?) impossible truly to “bring alive” past events, people, societies, etc. Backing away from the literal sense of bringing something alive, I think there would have to be some sort of way to very accurately and vividly recreate the event or people you are trying to foster that connection with. I suppose you could say civil war re-enactors do this to some extent, and maybe that’s on the right track. Let’s say we’re trying to recreate some sort of Egyptian exhibit. With the knowledge we have of Egypt, its society, its people, etc. we try to, in essence, recreate Egypt down to the individual block and turn that into Egypt. Think of it like an Egyptian Historical Jamestown? Then fill it with little things that help remind us that all of these Egyptians were in fact the same brand of human as we are today. Obviously, the farther back time goes the harder it is to create and tell history in this way, so perhaps this is not the best avenue.

    In general, I find museum exhibits exciting, personally, but I can admit they do lack any sort of interactivity or something I can connect myself to them with. I think this is really why you don’t see a more active and passionate love for history from the general populace like you see enormous crowds at the Georgia Aquarium or something from sea creature lovers. It’s simply a matter of history being harder for someone without an inherent interest in it to develop an interest.

    I think history is just, by its very nature, a spectator sport. It’s hard to tell history in such a way that you can get people interested in it by opening it up to them in a more personable way (or not necessarily that, but in order to spark that interested, there has to be some level interest anyway that we can build on.) I don’t know if the point of the article was to come up with more engaging ways to tell history in order to get more people into it or just for the sake of doing it, so this entire last paragraph may be absolutely unnecessary!

    1. Thanks Tucker!
      Welcome to my life… this is what I’m faced with- making history interesting and fun for “regular” people who aren’t super into the subject… yet. I think that’s one of the reasons I enjoy working with children in museum education.. it’s much easier to get them hooked. That’s what happened to me afterall (Mrs. Malone with her “Mummies'” lesson at KES gifted program… and countless museum/historic site visits throughout my life. I was always a dork, what of it??).
      Since I know you are a history person… what is it about history that inspires you; why do you love it; why are you doing this to yourself?!?!? haha… but seriously. Why? If you know why, maybe you can use those reasons to tell the stories and make them exciting to others (when you’re teaching a group of sleepy and angry undergraduates).

  3. “But is there any reason that the Egyptian people should be viewed as that far removed from ourselves?” – This is an incredibly valid point. As part of our assistantships in the art history department we’re required to give museum tours. I always emphasize that the Egyptians being real PEOPLE, not these fantasy magicians and reincarnates (like in the movie The Mummy). Especially concerning the mummies, I always reiterate that they are REAL people, the same as you and me: they had jobs, family problems, and had different tastes in clothing, art, etc.
    I do agree with you, the humanness and individuality of the Egyptians is an aspect that is so often lost in the glitz and glam, but at the same time, it it this that draws the public to Egypt. So how could one create and exhibition that is interesting for Joe-Blow on the street, yet accomplishes what you’re speaking of. Look at Tut’s exhibit. That’s so popular because of the “treasures” it displays. Do people actually want to see everyday “stuff” from Egypt? Or are they all still caught up in the Egypt’s romanticism of early archaeology and stumbling across objects of fine gold and lapis?

    “My professor and I came up with some pretty cool ideas (no bodies under the famous Berlin Nefertiti bust, sorry).” – Thank god, because that was a HORRENDOUS idea.

    “My professor also told me a story about a time when she was excavating in Egypt. She excavated an entire road in a village; once she was finished, she was the first person to walk that road in thousands of years. How powerful is that??” – Definitely one of the most awesome emotions I experience when digging. You get to see, and pull out of the ground, something that hasn’t’ been seen or touched for thousands of years. Archaeology rocks! 🙂

    I feel that the work that goes into excavating, cataloging, storing, presenting, etc. objects should be an integral part of an exhibition. Over the summer I saw the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit in St. Paul, MN. The strongest aspect, I feel, to this exhibit was that they incorporated archaeological and conservation perspectives throughout the process of obtaining the objects. They had the tools that the archaeologists used, the materials used in conservation, and displayed how all of these aspects were used, and how one cannot exist without the other. By doing this, the exhibition was successful in putting all stages of work into context, and presented it in a linear scope of time (from the discovery of the scrolls, to the conservation, to the museum presentation, etc), something that us Westerners understand, and seem to favor when discussing a history of events. It is important for those that aren’t familiar with this filed to understand the amount of work completed between pulling something ancient out of the ground, or out of a tomb, to putting it in a museum for the public to see it.

    Good luck!

    1. Thanks so much for your thoughts and insights into this, Rachel!

      I tried to bring some of the awesomeness of archaeology to kids at Chucalissa with a program I developed there where the students get to “dig” fo…r artifacts in a box and determine if they are historic, prehistoric, or a mixture… doesn’t perhaps have the same effect of walking down a really old road, and the students aren’t the first person to touch the object… but it’s still a pretty cool feeling to hold a projectile point that i thousands of years old. And the visitors DO get to see the mounds and plaza, etc. outside… I do wonder if there is another way to get them more excited about that? I know on the tours I used to give there I would always talk about how many basket loads of dirt it would take to build the large mound, and we talked about daily life a lot… but I do wonder how connected the students feel to the Native people who lived there. The exhibits and the scavenger hunt through the exhibit talks about the daily life, too… but are the kids really paying attention to what they learn, and does it stick with them? Or are they really just thinking about who is going to get that projectile point prize?

      As a contrast, at the Biblical History Museum in Collierville, we built a dig pit over the summer and filled it with stratified “fake” objects from Ancient Rome, complete with burn layer from the great fire. Unfortunately, Memphis had the worst rain it had experienced in something like a month and a half, and our excavation pit turned into a ridiculous amount of muddy soup that the director and I dug through with our own two hands, since we didn’t want the students to cut themselves or get too dirty (which of course they did anyway). This is something that museum has done for around a decade, and I tried to bring something new to it with an introductory lesson about what archaeology is all about (complete with a total shut-down of the Indiana Jones theory. Yes, I was a dream crusher). I still wonder how different the experience could be with “real” archaeology. With so many actual archaeology sites in the area of many different types, maybe it would be most beneficial to let them experience “real” archaeology. It’s hard to get them excited about stories about archaeology, unless there are mummies and curses involved.

      I’ll have to think on this more…

  4. I completely agree! I think it’s hard for people to divorce themselves from the present, and it only gets harder to do the further back one is asked to look. For instance, I love American History. Absolutely love it. I’m a member of both DAR and UDC, but I would rather participate in War Between the States history for several reasons. I am less far removed from WBTS history than Rev War history. I can drive 5 minutes to General Longstreet’s headquarters during the Battle of Knoxville. Most of the events of the Rev War occurred much farther away (excepting King’s Mountain and a few others), not in my backyard. I have photos and diaries from some of my WTBS ancestors. And lastly, no one ever tells me that my Rev. Patriot ancestors made the wrong choice fighting for American Independence. Even though I’m so proud of all my ancestors, it’s just plain harder to identify with the ones who lived in the 1780s than the 1860s. And what’s more, you are trying to help little kids (and not-so-little kids, too) grasp history that occurred THOUSANDS of years ago.

    I think it’s important to realize that regardless of how far removed we may be from a particular point in history, that history has shaped what happens now. Whether it’s the aqueduct system devised by the Ancient Romans or the practice of riding horses with saddles (the Ancient Chinese did it first), history plays a part, subtle as it may be, in our every-day lives. Helping someone find the importance or understand history better just comes down to making it all personal and relevant. I applaud you for searching out ways to do this. I definitely don’t have the answers on how to go about it, but am very glad you are trying. So my post should mostly be considered a ramble and a high-five for your hard work. I look forward to calling you Doctor someday. 🙂

  5. Very interesting post comments. The problem of decontextualized cultural materials certainly resonates with me. I had an economics anthro prof who used to comment that archaeologists often view pottery sherds as though they are dancing across the landscape without human agency. Cultural materials become pretty things and little more.

    This semester I had students read:

    Talalay, Lauren E. and Todd Gerring. 2007. Eviscerating Barbie. Telling Children About Egyptian Mummification, pp. 226-240. In Telling Children About the Past: An Interdisciplinary Perspective, edited by Nena Galanidou and Liv Helga Dommasnes. International Monographs in Prehistory, Ann Arbor

    that seemed to contain several elements to truly connect the human element to the cultural object.

    I really like the idea of comparison with the Depression era U.S. and periods in Egyptian History.

    The notion of peopling the historic landscape is extremely relevant, and essential that the result in not a charade. For example, I have yet to visit the plantation home whether in Natchez Mississippi, or the River Road between New Orleans and Baton Rouge where the interpreter did not note that contrary to the general policies of the day, the Master at X Planation treated their slaves well, and in fact, after Emancipation, the former slaves refused to leave, etc. etc. etc. I have a similar concern as we discuss repeopling the landscape at the Chucalissa archaeological site, a Mississippian era temple mound complex. In the 1960s and 70s, the plaza area was lined with reconstructions that served as the location for fanciful representations of shaman’s and other personages “huts” – not houses. The last vestiges of the deteriorated houses were removed in 2003. The structures had doubled as the location where local artisans sold an array of stereotypical crafts for visiting tourists. That which was a restricted/sacred/special corporate space in prehistory was transported to a modern commercial enterprise zone. All of this is a bit of hyperbole, but we are now faced with how to add the human element to a landscape that is now devoid of any cultural representation, save the earthen mounds themselves. A challenge and an opportunity.

    My experience suggests that sometimes when we interpret we miss the obvious. Here are two examples. When I worked as a station archaeologist at a prehistoric site in Louisiana, we had Archaeology Week every fall where hundreds of students came to visit the site each day. The students were divided into groups of 30 or so and trooped through a set of stations set up around the site. At each station, the students received a 20 minute demonstration on some aspect of prehistoric life and interpretation. My station was archaeological recovery and interpretation. After about 15 minutes students were always antsy and ready to move on. The last technique I demonstrated was flotation analysis where bits of bone and seeds – the food remains from prehistoric sites are recovered. The first time I scooped out some of the flecks of black charred materials and white calcined bone and noted “this is not like what the people were eating, but in fact the very remains of what the people were eating” and walked the sample down the line of students, I was impressed with the rapt attention. I started being very intentional about the presentation and noted that, without exception, this bit of reality consistently quieted and drew the immediate attention of the the most restless students. A very simple presentation that connects the students to the past.

    A final example – Having worked as an archaeologist for a bunch of years, I am often asked, “what is the most interesting thing you have ever found.” I have very quick response. I am able to pull out a slate button with blind holes drilled on the backside. The button was excavated at a nearly 4000 year old site just north of Yazoo City in the Mississippi Delta. I relate that I am always amazed, and humbled, in knowing that 4000 years ago, the Native Americans used buttons in the same way we do today. A very simple but real connection to the past

    Enjoying this discussion

  6. Hey Katie!

    I’m not a historian, so mine is a patron’s point of view. However, I like your ideas. Personalization is definitely lacking in ancient history exhibits. I went to the British Museum in London, and it was awesome! And you’re right: part of what I like about ancient Egypt IS the mystical part of things, but when I was standing a foot or so away from actual (non-replica) ancient Egyptian statues, it didn’t seem very special; the sterility of the environment actually took away from the “wow” factor. Don’t get me wrong– those types of statues should definitely be displayed, but perhaps in ways akin to your ideas here rather than simply on a pedestal with an explanatory plaque.

    Nice blog!

  7. Hey Katie,

    I think you’re on the right track with comparing certain parts of Egyptian history with the Depression era, however, I think the best thing one could do to help people make connections with the Egyptians or any other ancient peoples is to emphasize how x, y, z artifacts were used in everyday life. Then connect that to the bigger story of how they lived – to humanize them, if you will.

    I’ve only ever seen Egyptian artifacts in art museums, so that has something to do with the way in which they are presented (with some supporting text only, by and large, valued mostly for aesthetics). I hold Egyptian artifacts as intrinsically valuable and interesting, personally, but have not really seen a presentation of them that was terribly distinctive or impressive to me in any other way. I am curious though: is there a problem with lack of visitor interest in Egyptians? Have you ever done a survey amongst visitors in a museum that houses these artifacts to see what parts of the museum they visited? I just watched a show on the Discovery Channel about King Tut recently. It seems like interest in Ancient Egypt never really goes away.

    If you want to make the Egyptians more relate-able, I think you have to find ways to show them as human beings, to bridge the distance between us and them. It’s a shame you missed that film on the Constitution that the students watched in History 2010. It was an interesting approach to the same problem you have – except in this case, it was the Founding Fathers who were humanized. No powdered wigs, no goofy breeches, they looked like modern people, which removed the barrier of time, and allowed the viewer to listen to what they were actually arguing and to recognize them as people with concerns not unlike people of today.

    I am all-for dioramas and recreations. The room you were talking about in the Pink Palace sounds like it was great. This might be a bit too grand, but: Wouldn’t it be awesome to re-create an Egyptian market or street scene in a museum? An Egyptian home? Wouldn’t you love to walk into a home from Ancient Greece or Rome, for that matter? I don’t know how much is known about these spaces – what has been recovered in archaeological digs- but I would love to see it. Let people walk through these spaces (hopefully, with some artifacts in their proper places within them) and compare them to their own homes. Incorporate all the sights, sounds and smells you possibly can. And I wish all museums could hire character actors to occasionally hang out in the spaces and talk to visitors about their lives in the period. This would be no exception.

    Also, since the Egyptians are so often associated with mummies, I would think finding ways of discussing their conceptions of death and afterlife in comparison to current conceptions would be interesting. Going along with my favorite – recreated scenes, in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History/Art in Pittsburgh, they used to have a recreated Egyptian tomb (you had to crawl into it too). It was dark and kinda creepy inside. There was some interpretative signage outside of it. My niece freaked when I took her through it. Quite frankly, one could put together an entire exhibition or museum based on death and the afterlife throughout various times and cultures. Mortality connects us all. How we handle it differs.

    Sorry – I may have repeated some of what you said in your post, I read it the other night, so I’m rusty on it – or I may be totally off – but personally, I think we need to make all history exhibitions as immersive and experiential as possible. Pretty artifacts or not. I know budgetary constraints make my ideas pretty grand, so consider it an ideal. Educational programming could probably find less expensive ways in which to explore various aspects of the lives of ancients. Their work, play, food, religion, etc.

  8. One of the keys to successful museum exhibits is to find ways to connect the audience to the content. You have developed some great insights into how to think about making this happen with ancient history. I look forward to your future posts!

  9. Sorry to jump from Facebook to commenting on your blog, but I worked at the Museum of Natural History for nine years, so this is a topic close to my heart. I think there are a few reasons why Egyptology exhibits might be considered “boring.”

    1. The memory of King Tut. I’m old enough to remember how the King Tut exhibition (in the late 70s) was at the center of American pop culture. It was almost as hyped as a Star Wars movie, and created the notion of a “block-buster” museum show. It was on the cover of every magazine, and every news program showed the incredible lines to get in to see it. Perhaps curators my age — who all have this cultural memory from their childhoods — simply don’t realize that an Egyptology exhibit isn’t inherently fascinating.

    2. The need for narrative. I went to an Egyptology exhibit at the Kimble Museum a few years ago, and while I remember thinking that it was well-done, I no longer remember anything about it except looking at “stuff.” It didn’t have the dramatic narrative that Tut did (The mummy’s curse! Was the boy king murdered?!) So I’m wondering if viewers (who are exposed to dramatic stories on a daily basis) have come to expect that.

    Imagine, for instance, how hard it would be to get a big crowd for an Old Master exhibit that wasn’t Rembrandt. But the Met had a huge success with the Artemesia Gentileschi solo show, even though she was a relatively minor artist. Why? Because her story had a personal narrative: woman painter in a time when only men were trained as artists, plus her subject matter related to sexual assault she’d suffered in her youth. It gave the viewers a “story.”

    Same with the MoMA blockbuster of Picasso and Matisse. The curators organized the show to reflect the competition between the artists. It humanized a show about very subtle and abstract concepts.

    I almost think that, to be a big success, curators should ask themselves, “If this exhibit were going to be a movie, what would the story be?” I’m not saying that the public shouldn’t be interested in cultural objects on their own merits. But they really do seem to need a story as a “way in” to start looking at the objects.

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