Central Zagros Archaeological Project Bestansur

If the blog has seemed quiet for a little while it’s because Museum Studies at Reading went international during the Easter vacation. The first trip was with the Department of Archaeology’s Central Zagros Archaeological Project (CZAP). As you’ll see Kurdistan is beautiful in the spring and the people were extremely welcoming. I was over there to give some advice on the ‘public archaeology’ side of things and to explore the potential to develop some interpretation with and for local people.

The fields around Bestansur

The fields around Bestansur

The CZAP project focuses on the Central Zagros region of west Iran and east Iraq and explores the beginnings of the Neolithic. The project combines techniques from archaeological science and social archaeology to understand the move to farming in this area of the Fertile Crescent. Some of the earliest layers are 9700 years old so specialists are looking for tiny traces of past activity using techniques such as micro-morphology.

The team getting ready to dig first thing in the morning

The team getting ready to dig first thing in the morning

One of our students Mat sieving for tiny fragments

One of our students Mat sieving for tiny fragments

This kind of project difficult to explain to non-specialists. One of my dissertation students Mat Britten (pictured above) was also on the trip as part of his research into public understanding of archaeological science – specifically micro-morphology. He is lucky to have micro-morph expert Dr Wendy Matthews as his other supervisor. She is extremely well versed in trying to explain this process to archaeologists and non-archaeologists alike.

With Mat and the rest of the team helping I tried to see what we could do on the interpretation front. The local city of Sulaimaniyah (you’ll find lots of spellings and pronunciations of this) has a fantastic museum which recently received UNESCO funding for some refurbishment. We worked with their staff to bring in teachers and create resources in Kurdish.

Slemani Museum

Slemani Museum

In the UK something like this would probably take years to organise but the Director of Education for the region managed to get 28 teachers and 5 regional supervisors to the site only 4 days after we approached him with the idea. It was really impressive to see this level of commitment to archaeology, and the teachers seemed as interested in the behind the scenes science labs as they were in the site itself.

Mat explaining micro-morphology to teachers back at the labs

Mat explaining micro-morphology to teachers back at the labs

Later in the season the chemistry teachers in the region also visited to find out more about the scientific processes being undertaken by specialists on site. Mat and another member of the team Hawar managed to put together a simple but effective flyer explaining the site in English and Kurdish for the second visit which can be used again in the future.

Teachers on site

Teachers on site

I had a wonderful time in Bestansur. The Reading and the local team were extremely welcoming and the site itself was fascinating. From interviewing local workers we found that there is a great deal of regional pride in the results of this excavation. As the dig went on more and more people came to visit. The region is focusing a lot of energy on its archaeology and history at the moment. It will be interesting to see how the site develops over the next few years.

 

 

Glastonbury Abbey Study Day: Guest Post

Earlier this year we ran a Medieval Archaeology and History Study Day for A/ AS level and GCSE students at Glastonbury Abbey. We had a fantastic turn out and I challenged the students to come up with a blog post describing the day. The winner Olivia Bishop (Bruton School for Girls) will get a day behind the scenes with the curators at the Abbey. This is the day in Olivia’s words…

Glastonbury Abbey

Glastonbury Abbey

“Archaeology is a subject that has always sat in the back of my mind as a possible interest; however, despite my love of history, I have never studied or seriously researched it. The talks at Glastonbury Abbey, on Monday 1st February have helped to change that!  From learning about the excavation of bones, to the science behind the archaeology itself, the whole day was fascinating and I came away with new interests and a desire to know more.

Professor Roberta Gilchrist’s talk on how archaeological techniques can help us to understand the medieval world was enlightening and brought alive a subject I hadn’t previously considered. The idea that, using carbon dating techniques, a piece of pottery can give us accurate data on the age of the monastery is amazing. Learning about and seeing a geophysical survey was exciting and I was surprised by how much archaeologists can learn without digging-and destroying the evidence.

Although I had previously heard a few of the Glastonbury Abbey myths, I didn’t know much about it before I arrived and the influence it once had was completely unknown to me. The mind map we were asked to write at the beginning of the day certainly highlighted that; however, by the afternoon, I could recount a detailed chronology of the abbey’s history alongside some of its many legends, and the reasons behind them. I think what captured my attention most, was the idea that when, in 1191, the monks at Glastonbury claimed to dig up the grave of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere. They were probably just trying to make money and had no idea of the effect that the myth would have, not only on the thousands of visitors that were attracted to the Abbey by it, but on how it would influence future historical research of the site.

The talk

The talk

Meeting leading archaeologists and learning about their work was really interesting. The range of information and different types of work they are doing is incredible and has opened my eyes to many aspects of archaeology I hadn’t previously thought about. How it is presented, for example, is key in how much people learn and how much of an interest they take in the subject. The bones found at the site help us to discover what type of lifestyle the monks at the Abbey lived and the ecosystems and fossils found, work with the geophysical technology to show where buildings would have once been.

Although the day showed that real archaeology doesn’t happen like it does on ‘Time Team’, it opened my eyes to career options I had never previously considered and gave my love of history a new dimension.”

Museum Studies and Costumed Interpretation Summer Schools

Exciting news! We are running summer schools in the museum this year. The University of Reading has a whole suite of International Summer Schools designed to give people a taster of academic life and we’re looking forward to welcoming some new students over the summer months.

Ure Symposium

Introduction to Museum Studies is aimed at students who want to explore some of the theoretical and practical challenges which face museum curators. This course will include the opportunity to explore: UK Museum History and Ethics; Interpretation and Education; Collections Management and Conservation.The course runs 7th-18th July 2014 right here behind the scenes at the museum.

Performing the Past is being offered via an exciting collaboration between the University of Reading’s Museums and Collections, our Film, Theatre and Television Department, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Historical Royal Palaces and Past Pleasures. Learn the basics of costumed interpretation in beautiful surroundings with guidance form the UK’s oldest costumed interpretation company. The course runs 21st July-1st August 2014.

The application process is outlined by the International Office on their Summer School website. Reading alumni and their families get a special discount. Book now!

Moving on Up 2014 at the Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester #mou2014

Thanks to our Guest Blogger Richard Kelly (Volunteer at the Cole Museum of Zoology and student on our Curatorship and Collections Management Module) talking about his experience at Museums Association’s ‘Moving on Up’ career development conference earlier this term.

The Museum Association’s conference for the young, up and coming professionals of the heritage sector was held at the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) in Manchester. It was primarily meant as a networking event where professionals in the first five years of their career could mingle with each other as well as some more experienced professionals. The feeling of the day was extremely positive and everyone seemed to be having lots of fun with the various activities and talks that were held. Towards the end of the day it was obvious that everyone was in high spirits and that even the more experienced amongst us had learnt a lot. The closing speech by David Anderson, the president of the Museums Association heralded the day as a massive success and stated that he would be going back to the National Museum of Wales which he directs and will be seeing what changes he can make after the revelations of the day.

The day began with a key notes speech on leadership by Richard Wilson, an empowering talk where young professionals were encouraged to be the ‘anti-hero’ and to take control of their lives and their careers. Three provocations on the essence of a radical workforce were particularly inspiring and looked forward to the next generation asking them to make the changes necessary to keep the heritage sector relevant in the modern world. The Ministry of Curiosity was also in attendance and gave a talk on how they had set up an independent museums blog for London (@curiositytweet). The blog discusses behind the scenes gossip of the museum circuit in London and tells its readers interesting titbits that might not usually be heard. They are careful to mention that they have a strict code of ethics when it comes to posts and will not post anything that puts the security or safety of museum workers or collections in danger.

Workshops included discussions on how to make a career in the heritage sector including specific hurdles that must be addressed. Also a discussion on how to plan for the future by making a career timeline was led by Tamsin Russel from National Museums Scotland. One of the most useful workshops looked at how to prepare the perfect pitch. Hillary McGowan a professional advisor to the heritage sector explained her method for making a professional pitch with the premise of meeting someone you want to give you a job in the lift and having 30 seconds to get yourself across to them. Others speakers were Tom Andrews from People’s United who spoke about the importance of being kind in the professional world and how to temper dreams with reality to make sure you get the most out of your career. Liz Hide from University Museums Cambridge spoke about leading when you’re not in charge and discussions followed on how to lead and how you would like to be led.

One of the big issues that came up during question time was the importance of qualifications in the heritage sector and whether those without them would hit a ‘glass ceiling’. The debate got rather heated with supporters on both sides of the argument. Personally I can see the benefit of qualifications and agree that some positions probably will require specialist qualifications, especially in the science heritage sector and research positions. That is not to disregard the benefits of staff with a wide range of non-academic skills but employers should also be careful not to disregard the hard work put into getting qualifications. There were several comments from senior professionals regarding the privileged upbringing that must accompany higher qualifications. Personally I find this quite insulting, having grown up in a small town in Lancashire and having to work for everything I’ve achieved to this day the notion that employers could see my efforts as merely a sign of privilege is worrying to say the least.

All in all the experience was truly amazing and the things I learnt about the heritage sector and about taking control of my career will definitely come in handy in the years to come. As will the connections I made with the many cool and friendly people I met. The next big event for the Museums Association is the annual conference held this year in Cardiff in October. I am looking forward to attending and hopefully seeing some of my new friends again.

Richi (@Worldwide_Richi)

AHRC: Glastonbury Revealed

How do you interpret a site which is best known for its myths? The University of Reading is being featured on the AHRC website today in a film which examines a recent research project with Glastonbury Abbey, Somerset, UK. Find out more about how Professor Roberta Gilchrist (Department of Archaeology, University of Reading) and a team of experts disentangled a complex web of archival documents and stored objects related to historic excavations at the site (1904 – 1979). Museum Studies Programme Director Dr Rhi Smith appears in the video, talking about her collaboration with the Abbey and the challenges of developing an interpretation strategy which respected the complex history and spiritual significance of the site.

The AHRC have provided the following information on the project:

“The site of Glastonbury Abbey is one of the important ancient heritage sites in the UK.

A focus for many people who value the spiritual and historical resonances of the place, it is best known for its legendary reputation as the burial place of King Arthur and as the earliest Christian foundation in Britain, allegedly founded by Joseph of Arimathea, the great-uncle of Christ, in AD 63.

A team of AHRC-funded researchers, led by Professor Roberta Gilchrist of Reading University, has re-evaluated the history of Glastonbury Abbey and its environs and disentangled the rich but not always accurate myth from historical reality.

Among the findings are: fresh evidence to confirm that the abbey site was indeed occupied in the 5th or 6th century, before the foundation of the Saxon monastery; identification of an early timber building with large post pits associated with fragments of imported Roman amphorae, dated c AD 450-550 and often associated with very high status secular (ie royal) settlement; analysis of glass and metal fragments suggesting that the glass-working furnaces at Glastonbury represent the earliest evidence for significant glass production in Saxon England; and a great deal more.

The project has worked closely with local groups and the general public and outreach activities have been crucial to its work and its findings.

This film examines the new evidence unearthed by the project and how researchers have worked with the Abbey Museum, conservators and the public to explore the history of this rich and extraordinary site.”

Behind the scenes at UCL

Where can you see death masks and Darwin’s tweezers? The University College London collections. I love to scope out what other people have hidden away and last Wednesday Curator Nick Booth kindly took me and my colleague Andrew Mangham to look at their stores.

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Andrew is an expert in 19th century gothic fiction, real life Victorian murder cases, and Charles Dickens so we were particularly interested in the criminology collections. We weren’t disappointed when confronted with a collection of death masks. The masks of the great and good sit alongside a morbid collection of masks taken from executed criminals. Read Nick’s own blog post for more information about this fascinating collection.

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One mask had several cut marks where the swordsman had not found his mark the first time around. Another was mysteriously split in half. Andrew noted that Dickens witnessed and described an execution by guillotine in which the head was severed in half. He also noted that in Dickens’ work such masks are described as decorating the office of a lawyer (I am not a Dickens expert so I’ll get the exact quote for anybody who is interested). Isn’t inter disciplinarity great?

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We looked around the Galton collection and saw examples of early fingerprinting and phrenology equipment. Galton was Darwin’s cousin and idolized him. Thus, in his collection he had Darwin’s tweezers, pruning scissors and coat clasps. There were drawers full of fascinating and baffling looking pieces of equipment so we are planning to head back soon to quiz the specialist curator Subhadra Das.

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Nick’s remit is the science and technology collections, however, the most famous ‘object’ under his care is the auto-icon of Jeremy Bentham. Jeremy Bentham was a philosopher and social reformer and he asked that his body be dissected and displayed in this unusual manner. If you want to stop by and visit Bentham you can find him in the South Cloisters of UCL…

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In the stores with our curatorship students

Last Friday our Part 2 Curatorship and Collections Management students got to check out their research objects in our store. We had conversations about the eating habits of hawks and crows, tried to work out the mechanics of traps, and hunted for exactly the right shire horse bit to study. We also had students looking at our Women’s Land Army collections and being puzzled by ‘8 years of service’ on one armband (they actually served from 1939-1950!) Students come from a range of disciplines and they always have a fresh perspective and ask new questions. It’s also great to explore some previously overlooked contraptions and gizmos such as our miniature singer sewing machine or this fabulous mouse trap…

Mouse trap

Mouse trap

Untouchable England: this term’s seminar series

Intangible Cultural Heritage is a growing area of interest in the field of heritage and museum studies. However, the UK is yet to ratify the 2003 UNESCO Convention on Intangible Cultural Heritage. Do we have intangible heritage in the UK and “how can we best explore stories, performances, poetry, folklore, mythology, and skills and knowledge of rural people?”

The Museum of English Rural Life’s lunchtime talks offer fresh perspectives and thought-provoking content about how different forms of intangible heritage might help us explore and better understand rural England. As the term progresses I’ll report back on the talks and flag up interesting projects and articles regarding intangible heritage in England and the rest of the UK.

In an ideal world we’d like you to come along in person. Seminars run 1-2pm for the MERL seminars. Each event takes place in the Conference Room at MERL. Please register in advance if you plan to come along, or contact us on the day to check there are still spaces available.

Stave dancers

Somerset Morris: West Country Friendly Society Stave Dancers

Chloe Metcalfe, Independent Researcher

  • Tuesday 21st January
  • 1 to 2pm
  • Free
  • Register in advance

Somerset Morris has performed stave dancing across England and further afield for over 30 years. Using antique Friendly Society stave heads they perform dances resurrected from old minute books as well as newer creations. Whilst referring to the staves themselves, this talk concentrates on the team’s relationship and passion for this traditional and localised dance form. The talk was co-written with Barbara Butler, founding member of Somerset Morris

An informal pop-up display of Friendly Society pole heads (staves) from MERL’s extensive holdings will be available for viewing in the mezzanine store immediately after the Seminar.

Find out more about Chloe Metcalfe and Somerset Morris

 

The Full English: unlocking hidden treasures of England’s cultural heritage

Malcolm Taylor, Library Director, English Folk Dance and Song Society

  • Tuesday 28th January
  • 1 to 2pm
  • Free
  • Register in advance

The Full English is the biggest project the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS) has undertaken since the building of its headquarters in 1930. It has created and made accessible an enormous digital archive of early twentieth century English folk arts manuscripts. In this talk the Director of the Society’s Library explores how the digitisation and cataloguing process has been enhanced through rich programmes of community engagement and creativity.

There will be a pop-up exhibition in the Museum mezzanine store immediately after the Seminar, offering the chance to see a hobby horse costume with connections to EFDSS as well as other relevant material from the collections.

Find out more about England’s Cultural Heritage

 

Basketry skills as intangible cultural heritage

Greta Bertram, Museum of English Rural Life, University of Reading

  • Tuesday 4th February
  • 1 to 2pm
  • Free
  • Register in advance

The state of traditional craftsmanship has changed dramatically during the last century. While craft skills are recognised by UNESCO as intangible cultural heritage, in the UK there is little public awareness of such approaches. Using the example of basketry, this talk will examine the idea of heritage craft, explore values that basketmakers ascribe to their work, and look to the future of intangible craft skills.

The Seminar will be followed by an informal pop-up exhibition of baskets in the Museum’s mezzanine store and a chance to talk about MERL’s current Stakeholders project.

Find out more about intangible heritage on the MERL project blog.

 

Ghosts and belief: religion and folklore

Dr Paul Cowdell, University of Hertfordshire / The Folklore Society

  • Tuesday 11th February
  • 1 to 2pm
  • Free
  • Register in advance

Barely anywhere in England lacks a ghost story. This is not just a collection of local legends, but points to a complicated history of eschatological thought. This seminar, based on recent fieldwork, examines that folk eschatology. It will look at its interaction with more institutionally expressed religious beliefs, and explores the implications of the apparent disjuncture between them.

Find out more about Dr Paul Cowdell and The Folklore Society

 

“- I catch them at intervals – “: Knowing and Not-Knowing in “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn”

Dr Neil Cocks, Department of English Language and Literature, University of Reading

  • Tuesday 18th February
  • 1 to 2pm
  • Free
  • Register in advance

In this seminar Dr Neil Cocks will be discussing issues of language and narration in the central, mystical chapter of Kenneth Grahame’s ‘The Wind in the Willows.’

An informal pop-up exhibition of different editions of the book will be available for the audience to enjoy immediately after the Seminar.

Find out more about Dr Neil Cocks

 

Sounds Familiar? Exploring British Accents and Dialects’

Jonnie Robinson, Lead Curator of Sociolinguistics, British Library

  • Tuesday 25th February
  • 1 to 2pm
  • Free
  • Register in advance

Jonnie Robinson is responsible for the Library’s extensive collection of sound recordings that capture social and regional varieties of English. This talk will introduce the Library’s audio collections, resources and services and present examples from the Library’s sound archives that document British English accents and dialects.

Find out more about Jonnie Robinson

 

The Museum of British Folklore: A new cultural venture

Simon Costin, followed by Obby Robinson

  • Tuesday 4th March
  • 1 to 2pm Simon Costin & 2 to 2.45pm Obby Robinson
  • Free
  • Register in advance

At the moment there is no dedicated institution that explores the full richness of British custom, superstition, and tradition. The Museum of British Folklore aims to address this need. In this talk Simon Costin shares progress to date, reflecting on how the project has gained momentum in its bid to provide a physical home for a heritage that is both tangible and intangible.

The Seminar will be followed by a poetry reading in the Museum’s gallery. Obby Robinson will read from his most recent collection-“The Witch-House of Canewdon and Other Poems”. These writings draw inspiration from, and loosely improvise upon, English folklore.

Find out more about Simon Costin

 

The Dark Monarch: Magic and modernity in British art

Professor Alun Rowlands, Department of Fine Art, University of Reading

  • Tuesday 11th March
  • 1 to 2pm
  • Free
  • Register in advance

In 2010, Tate St Ives mounted an exhibition exploring the influence of folklore, mysticism, mythology and the occult on modern British art. In this talk Professor Rowlands revisits a performance commissioned from folk dancers and mummers and discusses how art has been used as a vehicle to explore legend and landscape.

Find out more about Professor Alun Rowlands

 

MERL and the BBC: Rural re-enactment and gestural reconstruction in the 1950s

Dr Ollie Douglas, Museum of English Rural Life, University of Reading

  • Tuesday 18th March
  • 1 to 2pm
  • Free
  • Register in advance

MERL’s earliest curators rapidly adopted the techniques of public history in order to salvage a way of life seen to be disappearing and cement a technology-centred approach to the past. During the 1950s, their short set-piece re-enactments played a prominent role in television broadcast contexts. This talk explores how reconstructive approaches to rural objects provided insight into the less tangible world of past gestures and actions.

This Seminar will be followed by a small pop-up exhibition in the Museum’s mezzanine store featuring objects used in television recordings or with connections to radio.

Find out more about Dr Ollie Douglas

 

 

Open Day for the SWW Doctoral Training Partnership

Thinking about a doctorate? Are you a UK or EU student? Then check out this event!

This is a last minute reminder that you need to book by midday on Monday 13th January for the South, West & Wales Doctoral Training Partnership’s Open Day at the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol. The event itself is on 22nd January 2014 and you can book via http://www.sww-ahdtp.ac.uk/open-day/ to meet potential supervisors, find out about different universities and learn an out about research opportunities.

The South, West & Wales Doctoral Training Partnership has designed a unique programme called ‘The Professional Arts and Humanities Researcher’. I’m flagging it up here as Reading is involved and because it’s really well suited to people with an interest in museums, heritage and collections based research.

Exhibitions for 2014

Happy New Year! At this time of year, while most people are planning crash diets and strict exercise regimes, the Museum Studies boffin is looking for some big exhibitions to visit in the UK. Here are some interesting options:

  • They are probably not going to tell us how he faked his death but the Sherlock Holmes Exhibition at the Museum of London will examine our enduring fascination with the fictional detective. Their Anatomy of a Suit exhibition also looks promising for fans of the well tailored gent.
  • At the Victoria and Albert Museum Wedding Dresses 1775-2014 looks like it’s going to be big. Will it bring the bustle back for 2015?
  • Vikings at the British Museum is definitely going in the diary but make sure you also check out the early medieval galleries which will be opening around the same time.
  • The Ashmolean has a knockout series of exhibitions lined up. The Blake and Tutankhamun exhibitions look like they’re going to be busy!
  • At the Natural History Museum you’ve got Mammoths and Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story for archaeology buffs.
  • Outside of the south-east you’ve got Kelvingrove’s Jack Vettriano Retrospective, and the National Museums Liverpool have a whole host of temporary exhibitions which look both aesthetically pleasing and boundary pushing. We might have to wait a bit longer to see the finished result but the St Fagans National History Museum’s Making History project is also really exciting.

Now obviously this list is currently very south-east and nationals focused. For art exhibitions Culture 24 currently has a helpful series of regional guides to 2014 exhibitions which you can consult. However, if there is an upcoming exhibition you’d like to shout about please write in comments and we’ll spread the word.