British Museum 2.0

DSC03355~2I’ve often said since my first trip that I didn’t love the British Museum, much to the surprise of everyone who knows me and loves museums. I said in a previous post from 2014 that: “I’ve recently come to realize that I just don’t love huge museums.  I didn’t really like the Met, I really didn’t like the Tate, and the Natural History Museum in NYC was just ok for me.  Why is this?  I’m a museum person! I’m still thinking it all out, but I think it might have to do with the exhaustion of vacation, the sheer size of the places, my feeling that I NEED to see everything, and the amount of people there.  Also, they seem like spaces for rich, old, white people most of the time.  It’s kind of like that feeling I get sometimes at big parties, where I’d rather talk to the wait staff.  Maybe I’ve just built them up so big for so many years that they couldn’t possibly live up to the hype in my mind.”

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Me with my girl Sekhmet; best of the Egyptian pantheon

My second trip in September 2018 was much better. I went in this time with a goal to see the Egyptian and Greek sections, the Sutton Hoo, all the bodies I could, and enough to give my mom a good sense of the museum. My mom was an excellent sport, playing along every time I started in with, “Did you know…” as we traveled through ancient world history. We saw the Assyrian reliefs, including what we decided is probably the first recorded dog blep (good catch, mom!), Rosetta stone, a bevy of Sekhmets, a small bit of the Parthenon Marbles, one of the best papyri representing the Egyptian afterlife, and the Paulos/Saulos spoons of the Sutton Hoo. So many amazing things.

DSC03312~2My main goal in this visit was to examine the display of human remains in the museum. Throughout the Egyptian section, the human remains of mummies and Predynastic skeletal burials abound. One section explored diet and daily life through human remains from dentition to bone structure. The typical wrapped Egyptian mummies were on full display, mummified remains out of wrappings, and skeletal remains from children and adults serve to show changes over time and by class or age or diet or a myriad of other things. Since only about 1% of the British Museum’s collection is on display, I wonder about the variety of individuals not on display. Their catalog lists the various human remains on their website: from cremated remains to hair to mummies and skeletons the variety is endless.

DSC03332~2One of the most interesting interactives that was new to me on this visit was the “autopsy table” for 5,500 year old “Gebelein Man A.” This was an interesting look inside the mummy, and the exhibit gives visitors a chance to investigate the scientific information gleaned from research on the mummy over the past few years. Signage throughout the area explained the scientific value of researching this body, and new evidence shows that Gebelein Man A has some of the oldest tattoos ever found preserved on human skin.

DSC03342~2Moving on from the Egyptian section, I found other remains in the Neolithic Britain area of the museum. A recreation of a burial from Stonehenge was on full display in the room, and around a corner I found “Lindow Man”, one of the famous bog bodies found throughout Northwest Europe. The contrast between the display of local remains in the National Museum of Ireland and those of England offer an interesting contrast. In Ireland, the bodies are displayed in small, private, quiet, and softly lift areas for each body. In England, Lindow Man was tucked around a corner, not in full view, but seemingly stuck amongst the rest of the detritus of the Neolithic and early Bronze Age. I have more thoughts on this that I am still fully fleshing (lol) out.

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my “well actually” historian face

After a few hours of jetting through to see as much as possible, and buying all of the tea towels in the shop, my general thoughts on the British Museum remain, “…thrilling to see, and … a testament to colonial conquests,” but I am happy I got to revisit, and I hope to be back again soon!

Next up: more human remains at the Museum of London: Docklands Roman Dead exhibit and some death tourism at the Café in the Crypt in St. Martin’s-in-the-Field in Trafalgar.

Egypt in Edinburgh

I was so, so, so excited to visit Edinburgh while the new The Tomb: Ancient Egyptian Burial exhibit was on. Egypt, mummies, museum, and death customs; what’s not to love?

IMG_20170513_141345816.jpgAt the time of writing this, the exhibit has closed, but luckily the National Museums of Scotland have an excellent web presence, with information, interactive, videos, and even games and learning materials.

The exhibit is described on their website as such:

The Tomb was constructed in the great city of Thebes shortly after the reign of Tutankhamun for the Chief of Police and his wife. It was looted and reused several times, leaving behind a collection of beautiful objects from various eras. These are displayed alongside objects found in nearby tombs, giving a sense of how burial in ancient Egypt changed over time.

The Tomb’s final use occurred shortly after the Roman conquest of Egypt, when it was sealed intact with the remarkable burials of an entire family. The exhibition comes ahead of the new Ancient Egypt gallery, opening at the National Museum of Scotland in 2018/19.

Interactives in use!

When I visited in May 2017, the gallery was a bit crowded, especially with children.  This limited my ability to try out the interactive elements of the exhibits (get off my lawn – adults like play, too), but it was nice to see kids excited about history.

Like Jameson Distillery, the exhibit used multi-sensory engagement and technologies so visitors can learn more and connect with the past.

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Touch, see, and smell table

I also really liked the exhibit text and content, which isn’t praise I give out lightly. I’m generally easily bored or uninterested in text, but the detail and translation of ancient funerary texts was fascinating! They also include a youtube video explaining the text on their website:

Next time I visit the museum, hopefully the new Egypt gallery will be open.  I can’t wait!

The British Museum: Elgin Marbles, Cabinet of Curiosities, and Overwhelming Spaces

British Museum front facade

British Museum front facade

On the best day in London ever, I had a chance to visit the British Museum, which was a dream come true.  For years, I’ve read about the museum, longed to see the Elgin Marbles and Rosetta Stone, and I even used the museum in my dissertation as an example of the old paradigm of museums.

Old paradigm, indeed.

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In the entryway

I’ve recently come to realize that I just don’t love huge museums.  I didn’t really like the Met, I really didn’t like the Tate (next blog coming soon), and the Natural History Museum in NYC was just ok for me.  Why is this?  I’m a museum person! I’m still thinking it all out, but I think it might have to do with the exhaustion of vacation, the sheer size of the places, my feeling that I NEED to see everything, and the amount of people there.  Also, they seem like spaces for rich, old, white people most of the time.  It’s kind of like that feeling I get sometimes at big parties, where I’d rather talk to the wait staff.  Maybe I’ve just built them up so big for so many years that they couldn’t possibly live up to the hype in my mind.

Regardless, the British Museum was still impressive, and again, the Day of the Feels continued.

We walked up Drury Lane to Museum Lane, and rounded the corner to find the great British Museum.  I got really excited about what was going to come next – I mean, this is THE place!  Home of the Rosetta Stone, countless Egyptian and Middle Eastern artifacts, and bane of every museum professionals’ ethical and reasoning mind powers – the Elgin Marbles.  I had a bit of the vapors as we went in, saw the entrance, and walked through some of the Egyptian rooms – but the real feels didn’t come until…

EMOTIONS!

EMOTIONS!

We got to the room filled with the Elgin Marbles.  They were huge, and beautiful, and amazing… and I was so sad that here they were in the middle of London, instead of in Greece still on the Parthenon.  Of course, there are many pros and cons to this situation, which is why its a perfect Museums Studies class discussion.  But the current ethnic Greeks aren’t the same ones who are there now – but the Turks sold them to that British guy – but otherwise they would be destroyed – but but but – I really can’t decide what is right or wrong in this case.  All of that aside, they were astounding to see.

Elgin Marbles!

Elgin Marbles!

Charles dragged me along, I saw the Rosetta Stone and felt/got felt by a ton of people trying to do the same thing, and the rest of the museum is kind of a blur.  I remember seeing some goat mosaics, and the large library-esque room.

I have many leather-bound books and my apartment smells of rich mahogany.

I have many leather-bound books and my apartment smells of rich mahogany.

The British Museum also seemed a bit, like most huge museums, to be a Cabinet of Curiosities gone wild.  There is a hodge-podge of  anything and everything there.  Some of it was thrilling to see, and some of it seemed to be a testament to colonial conquests.

We saw all the things and stuff,  as you can see in the pictures below, but by the time we got to the more modern exhibit of watches and timepieces, I grabbed a small stool and sat in a hall while Charles explored some more.

Final thoughts – I am an expert spotter of goats, both in the wild, and especially in museums.

Also, I can’t decide if I have memory fatigue from that day because of the sheer size of the collection and space, or if it was because of the reasons raised in this fantastic article on the Huffington Post called “Why Taking Photos At Museums Is Hindering Your Memory. “When people rely on technology to remember for them — counting on the camera to record the event and thus not needing to attend to it fully themselves — it can have a negative impact on how well they remember their experiences,” Henkel explains in a description of the study.”

It was nice to get back into the fresh air as we walked on to the Richard II performance.  I’m still processing the whole visit to the British Museum, but I wouldn’t say I DIDN’T like it.  It was just a little overwhelming.  I also can’t say I’d particularly want to go back to it, either.

Hopefully someday, I’ll think some more about the visit and update this blog with more thoughts and feels…

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Disaster Planning Code Red – What Can We Learn from the Tragedies in Egypt?

With the  atmosphere in Egypt being what it is, most historians and archaeologists knew it was only a matter of time before aspects of the rich Egyptian history and material culture were destroyed.  Among all the other heartbreaking stories of the massive loss of human life and looting, the story of the Mallawi Museum in Egypt stands out as one of the greatest cultural tragedies in recent history.

The Mallawi Museum after looters took most of the collections

According to the Egypt Heritage Task Force post, around 1050 artifacts from the Mallawi Museum were looted during the nationwide protesting and unrest.  During the event, the security guards were shot at and the museum director was injured.  More recently, reports have come out that the remaining 49 objects that were too large to be looted have been burned in a fire.  In addition to the looting of institutions, many archaeological sites have been left unguarded and illegal digging has taken place to uncover items that may never be recorded by historians.

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Facebook in the classroom: How can we effectively use social media to teach?

I’ve talked about facebook in the classroom before, as a way to provide funny snipets of history from historical figures.  I wanted to try to find a way to integrate the social media that students (and myself!) use on an almost every day basis into the classroom as a teaching/learning tool.

As an optional extra credit homework assignment (full assignment and rubric available here) I challenged students to think creatively as an historical figure.  Their assignment was:

1. Chose a historical figure that we have studied or a person from one of the civilizations we have covered in this class.

not an accurate representation of me

2. Create a profile page for this character.

3. The next page has a checklist of all the information that must be included.  Use this sheet to complete your research before you begin constructing the page and finding pictures. Make sure you check off each item as you do it to get full credit!

4. This page does not literally have to be an online account.  You can produce a mock-up through Word, Photoshop, Powerpoint, or with magic markers or colored pencils depending on your level of creativity.

5. This assignment does require research.  You may use your textbook or other academic books.  You may go online to find information, but please remember that WIKIPEDIA IS NOT A VALID SOURCE.  NEITHER ARE NON-ACADEMIC WEBPAGES.  If you are unclear on what an “academic webpage” is email me.  Use websites with .edu or.gov for valid information.

6. You must, as always, properly cite your sources and include a works cited page.  I prefer footnotes for this assignment since it needs to be aesthetically pleasing.  Since this assignment requires more research I expect your citations to be correct.  If you have questions, email me or visit the writing center.

7. To get full credit you must have information for every category listed below.  This may require you to be creative but also be historically accurate.

8. Extra extra credit (1 point each):

  • Prepare a presentation for the class on your historical figure, your page, and your process of creating this page for an extra point.
  • Create an actual facebook page published using the information you have compiled here.
Students then had to fill in the worksheet with the following information:

Since this was an optional homework assignment for extra credit it did involve a lot more work and research than previous projects.  I wasn’t sure how students would react, or how many would take the time  and effort to fully develop the assignment.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have as many students participate in this as I would have liked!  In the future I hope to make this a required homework assignment instead of extra credit.

One creative idea was to do a page for Cleopatra using the Shakespearean play for the wall facts and conversations among the Pharaoh and her lovers.

I also had another Cleopatra, Achilles, and Jesus. Surprisingly, they all love watching Ancient Aliens!  Clever, students. Very clever.

Achilles’ page was great.  He has some pretty awesome lines; his last status update was, “taking a dip in the Styx River!”  This was after he met with Homer to give him some info on the Illiad and complained that Lycomedes made him dress like a girl.  His interests include working out, sailing, and traveling, while his favorite movies are 300 and Antigone.  Also, for all you Achilles stalkers, he lives at 1345 Hellenistic Drive, Athens, Greece.

My second Cleopatra got very creative, as well.  Her last status was, “…will not let Rome control me!  My Antony is dead and I can not live without him!” dated 30 B.C.E.   Her relationship is “It’s complicated” with Julius Caesar.  Her statuses also complain about having to marry her brother Ptolemy XIII, but she is quite happy to take the throne and rule Egypt.

She also talks about running off to learn Egyptian language and culture to try to gain respect of Egyptians.  Her favorite music includes the sistrum and Walk Like an Egyptian, and she enjoys watching the Style network.  And for any Cleopatra stalkers, you can email her at isislover@ptolemy.com   Her political view is divine rule, and she included several pictures of herself on her facebook page.  She included photos from Egyptian papyrus, Renaissance paintings, 1920s film, Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra, Kim Kardashian as Cleopatra, Angelina Jolie as Cleopatra, and also a Greek bust and a coin that may show the “real” Cleopatra.   Another album was also posted of herself and her Ptolemy family members.

My students used (for the most part) valid educational websites or books for this research project.  It seems that they enjoyed themselves and the opportunity to be creative in a history class, which may not always be the case.

It also seems that the students learned quite a bit from this project.  Not only did students learn a lot about a specific person from history (or mythology), but they also learned a lot about creative thinking, the historical context and the world of that person, and how to do proper research and citations.

Have any of you used Facebook in the classroom, or other social media?  How can it be used effectively?  I encourage you to try this with your students either as an extra credit assignment or as an alternative homework assignment.  I believe in my future classes it will be a very beneficial learning tool.

Great book for anyone who educates anyone about any kind of history

In my professional residency colloquium this semester, myself and my 3 fellow PhD students are required to read books and articles related to the Public History field.  The first book we read was by far the best book I’ve read in my entire time as a graduate student of history/public history. My only regret is that I did not read the book before working in education in museums!  I would highly recommend this book to all museum professionals, secondary history educators, museum educators, public historians, and all graduate students or people interested in pursuing public history or education.

The book is Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past, by Sam Wineburg. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001.  You may even buy the book yourself on Amazon  or Half.com and I highly recommend that you do!

Here are some of my thoughts and notes on the book as I was reading it, and as it relates to my own class and degree plans.  These are basically just notes on chapter 1 on the text, and I hope to share more thoughts on this book in the coming days!

Sam Wineburg teaches Education at Stanford University and previously taught at the University of Washington in Seattle as an adjunct History instructor as well as instructor of cognitive studies of education.  According to his Stanford faculty page, Winebug received a Bachelor of Arts in History of Religion and a PhD in Psychological Studies in Education.  This background is evident throughout the book, and sometimes the educational psychology was confusing to someone with little “traditional” educational training.

The author approaches several questions I have wondered about both in my studies and in the beginning of my residency such as why people study history at all, what history can teach us not just about the past but about humanity and ourselves, how history should be taught, and what exactly history’s place is outside of the classroom. Wineburg’s analysis of how people learn, and how history has been taught in the past is enthralling.  Additionally, the questions he asks, such as why to study history and what students should learn from their history classes, are intriguing and thought-provoking, especially to me as I teach my first class in a “traditional” classroom.

Section I is labeled, “Why Study History?”  The first chapter in this section shares the title of the book, “Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts.”  Wineburg opens with the debate on national history curriculum standards and the question of “which history” students should be taught in the classroom.  Traditionally, white old men were the focus of history courses, and with civil rights movements and women’s rights movements this has been called into question.  To me this seems almost a moot point; is there a specific history to learn?  Wineburg goes on to explain that history is grouped into the subject heading humanities, and this is true at Middle Tennessee State University as well as most other colleges and high schools.  Rather than a string of events and people and dates, students should be learning judgment  and critical thinking from humanities courses, history included.  Additionally Wineburg claims that history can humanize us in ways that other parts of the curriculum cannot.  The author even goes so far as to state that history can bring us together and not tear us apart as recent debates have done.

In planning for my own World Civilizations I course, I wanted to introduce my students to the global culture through the class and stories that can be found throughout ancient and classical history. I want to focus on the connections of cultures through themes to humanize the people and civilizations we talk about.  Additionally, critical thinking and questioning are ground stones for my course structure.  Explaining to my students that the people in the past are foreign to us and some of the things they did were strange is not difficult; students often bring that up in class and claim that they find something about ancient cultures “weird.”  I try often to relate the actions and values of people from the past to my students here in 2011, which has presented some challenges.
Familiarity and strangeness are also explored in this first essay.  While the familiar history helps us to place ourselves in time and

Wineburg claims that “strange” history that excludes people and does not engage others.  I have keenly felt this with World Civilizationswhich many people find to be foreign.  However many people have an inexplicable love for Ancient Egypt as evidenced in popular culture, museum exhibitions, Halloween costumes, and countless other venues.  Perhaps in the case of Egypt the strangeness is what is appealing.  In my class I try to appeal to the interesting “strangeness” of each culture or group that we study in an effort to engage my students in conversation and thinking about these people, or even to get them to remember any little detail about these people from the past.  What will people in the future think about them?  Will they be considered strange by people looking back to the past in which we live?relate to the past the strangeness of the past does not always engage students or others.  Discarding history that we do not understand or that does not fit with our previously taught histories or ideals is very dangerous.  People such as Hitler or Stalin, or even modern day political parties come to mind; these people and groups have used history to fit their own worldviews, and contorted what they knew, or thought they knew, to fit what they wanted in their own agendas.

Related to this strangeness is also the development of feelings of kinship and relationship to people in the past that we study.  A movement towards learning about humanity and social history is evident in the past several years, and perhaps because of this familiarity and my own personal training, social history is what I enjoy the most.

Even museums are moving towards this model; a session at the Tennessee Association for Museums last March focused completely on telling the stories of people who lived and their personal documents and pictures; using these primary sources, curators told the history of Tennessee through people rather than “facts and dates.”  This builds a connection to the past that might otherwise be lost in Woodrow Wilsons, “one damn fact after another.”  Even so teachers must be careful when instructing students in using primary sources.  Wineburg’s example of an honors student who interpreted primary documents was particularly telling; the student reads the sources well and understands the content, but he distorts it with his worldview and bias to shape it to what he already knows.

I want my students to understand that everyone has a bias and a worldview that is present through even what claims to be the most objective writing.  We have also explored primary sources such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, Hammurabi’s Code, and the Chinese Peasant’s Protest, and primary images and artwork.  Through group exercises I have tried to explain that even though these are primary sources, the authors and artists also had an agenda to some extent that must be identified.  Especially with the Peasant’s Protest I believe that this information has begun to sink in with the students.  Again, this comes down to critical thinking and analysis, which is one of the most important skills I want my students to learn in my class.
Finally, there are three other concepts from this chapter that I particularly enjoyed.  Wineburg’s explanation of context and strangeness through Marco Polo’s excerpt on unicorns/rhinoceros

is a great example of people interpreting what they see and learn through their own knowledge and ideas.  It is an important thing to remember both in my own personal studies and in teaching undergraduates.  Presentism, viewing the past through the lens of today, is another important concept for me.  Trying to get students to remove themselves from the present and look back is a hard thing to do.  When we covered the Mayans and bloodletting rituals this was particularly evident.  My students were appalled and could not understand why people let mutilation and “torture” happen.  It was hard to explain to them that their worldview and religions were different, and that perhaps the people who were being sacrificed or who were mutilating themselves to give blood to their gods did so willingly.  At the same time, I tried to explain that they were people and not that different from us even though they seem so strange.  I used the analogy of wrestling or cage fighting today and even the ancient Romans and gladiators to explain the allure of seeing executions.  At the same time, there was a difference in Mayan culture because of the religious

meanings behind sacrifice and bloodletting rituals.  Lastly, this chapter introduces context; this word is from the Latin “to weave together.”  History and context are inextricable, and historians and teachers must connect the past into a pattern to understand what happened, why it is important, and what we can learn from it.

This book helped spark a lot of thoughts on my own study of history and how I teach the students in my World Civilizations class.  I have often wondered why exactly it is that I study history and what I want my students to learn through my class.  I do not necessarily want them to learn dates or a chain of chronological events, but rather I want them to understand the bigger concepts, critical thinking, globalization and worldview changes, how to study for a test, how to think critically, how to be a citizen in a global world, and to some degree empathy and understanding of difference in culture throughout the world.  I wish I had more time to plan and to give them more resources that are “fun.”  Next time I teach this course I want to give them more hands-on and interactive opportunities instead of just lecture with powerpoint slides of pictures.

I hope this has been a helpful review!  This truly is one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read, as evidenced by the multitude of markings in the margins.  If you have read it or have thoughts, please let me know in the comments section below!!

 

Another semester soon begins, after an extremely productive summer…

Getty Villa Courtyard

Indeed, I realize it as been months since I last posted, but I’ve had an incredibly productive and educational summer.  Here are the highlights that I hope to expound upon more in the future:

– I had 3 summer courses, which finished up my coursework portion for my PhD program!!  I took 2 Advanced projects and an interdisciplinary education course.

– I traveled.  A LOT. Highlights include:

Los Angeles, CA – I went to the Getty Villa in Malibu – I have a review all written up in my head, and hopefully my more structured fall schedule will allow me to write more about it.

I met a Sphinx at the Luxor

– Las Vegas, Nevada – It was Vegas!  I also took time to look at several ancient/world history related things (Luxor, Caesar’s Palace, Forum Shops) in relation to Margaret Malamud’s article about the use of history in unusual settings.  Again, I have all kinds of thoughts and pictures from this and hope to share those this fall as well.

Toronto & Niagara Falls, Ontario – Part of an advanced projects in public history and cultural geography.  I developed a walking tour of Toronto, and I assure you I put the leg-work in to that project.  I will post it here soon, and I hope that anyone reading this enjoys walking approximately 25-30 miles over two days as much as I did.

We started a band while we were there

– I worked as interim education coordinator for the best historic site with the absolute best staff and most incredible boss and coworkers for most of the summer.  I learned lots and got some great projects out of it.  I also got to meet a baby goat, Snickers.

– Perhaps most exciting (yes, even more so than LA and Vegas AND the baby goat) was passing both my written and oral PhD Qualifyinf exams this week!  I am officially a resident now.

Snicks!

– Which leads me to the next exciting thing… I’ve been preparing to teach my first very own class this fall – World Civ 1.  I’ve put a lot in to it, and I think it’s going to be fun!  Next semester I will teach Explorations in Public History for my 2nd residency semester, and I already have a million ideas to mull through for that class.

Hope this post explains my absence to some extent!  I plan to post more regularly throughout the school year as I have done in the past.  I have a ton of material to talk about from the summer, and I am positive that the residency year will provide plenty of fodder for the blogging machine as well.   Also look for plenty of portfolio and CV updates full of my summer work!

Teaching begins tomorrow…. send us all the best of wishes (and a prayer for finding a parking space)!

Media and Public History

Yesterday I saw on facebook that a kitsch-y video about Nefertiti had been posted by my friend Rachel.   I immediately fell in love with its bizarreness and the ridiculous revamping of an old pop song and had to investigate further.

What I found was the YouTube page of the historyteachers. From what I can gather, this group of history teachers has taken several popular songs, from the Beatles to Lady Gaga, and changed the lyrics to relate to a certain historical figure or historic event.  Basically, these are pretty epic.  There are almost 50 videos, and I was up until about 2am watching them.   They are ridiculous and funny and kitschy and actually quite informative.

In my Ancient Egypt course this morning, Dr. McCormack showed the class the Nefertiti video, and then I was able to lead a discussion about Public History and the Ancient people, mostly revolving around the discussions in my last post.  The class enjoyed the video (because let’s face it… Nefertiti had style), and we discussed that while the video is kinda silly with the graphic ankhs floating around, there are some good bits of information in it.   Also, good job casting Akhenaten… he looks pretty much like I would expect him to in real life.  The video scratches the surface of the historic person and her importance, with mention of Nefertiti’s elevated status as a queen who was sometimes depicted, like her husband, with a crow.  The change in religion with the Aten is also mentioned.  While the video does not talk about all the important parts of the history, it is definitely a good jumping-off point for a lecture on the subject, and one that the audience may remember easier because of the media.

What are your thoughts on some of these videos?  Yes, they are kinda silly… but don’t they have some good information??  What are some of the benefits and consequences of clips such as these?

I will admit, after watching these, the William the Conqueror/Sexyback video stuck with me… I will never forget the year of the Norman Invasion again.   You should check these out, history buff or not.  They are, at the least, mildly entertaining. My personal favorites are:

The French Revolution/Bad Romance

Constantine/Come On Eileen

Copernicus/Because

I leave you with this gem:  Cleopatra, Pharaohlicious

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!!!