Monday, 8 June 2015

COLLECTIONS WITHOUT CONTEXT: REDISCOVERING "OLD WORLD" COLLECTIONS AT THE MOA

RESEARCH COLUMN

BY: MARY SIMONDS

The fantastic thing about the Museum Studies program is that it opens up a plethora of new research interests and questions that you never considered before. You find yourself wanting to investigate topics that interest you outside of your courses and assignments. Suddenly, just like that! (*finger snap*) You find yourself down the research rabbit hole and you are just too invested to stop. This is exactly what happened to me, and why I have decided to complete a master’s thesis (as scary as this may seem ....).

Source.

I initially had trouble nailing down a coherent research topic for my thesis, but I knew I had a general interest in collections. It was a professor from my undergraduate days at Western that finally came through with an idea for me.  She sent me a link to an online exhibition about two mysterious collections of Roman-Britain pottery and Mesopotamian artifacts discovered in the basement of the Museum of Ontario Archaeology (MOA) in 2011. The only documentation associated with them was a letter and a handful of index cards. It was a complete mystery how the collections from ancient Mesopotamia and Roman-Britain ended up in the basement of a museum dedicated to archaeology in Ontario.

Samian Ware bowl from Roman Britain. Source.

The MOA conducted an investigation and found that the Mesopotamian collection was originally excavated from Ur in 1922 and was then sent to the British Museum. In 1933, it was gifted to Western University’s President, Sherwood Fox, because they were classified as “duplicates”. The Roman-British pottery was excavated from a WWII bomb crater and then sent to MOA’s founder, Wilfrid Jury, in 1950. MOA is an affiliate of Western University and was originally located on Western University’s campus sharing their archives. When the museum relocated to its own location in the 1970s, the collections moved with it. 

Large pottery vessel from Ur. Source.

There was so much that intrigued me about the story behind these collections! The lack of associated documentation, the use of the term “duplicates” by the British Museum, and the surprising mobility of these collections. All of this sparked the questions; how is the relationship between information and objects formed?  As well, how does this relationship determine what kind of role certain objects play within a museum environment? Both the Mesopotamian and Roman-Britain collections were assigned value by various people/institutions; and that decision has affected their current value.  

So much of the inherent value of museum objects comes from the context and information associated with them. Through this they become valuable in either a heritage context or an educational context; especially archaeological collections. In archaeology, context is everything! It could be argued it is more important than the artifacts themselves! This holds true when the artifacts become part of a collection. I intend to use object biography as my lens of study. Object biography advocates that, much like people, objects are transformed through time, space, and meaning. Meaning is acquired in a variety of ways, through functional or physical change, or the events and people connected to the object. I believe that the meaning and function of these collections have been altered many times over the course of their “life” as museum objects; and because of these alterations their value has also been altered. 

That is the basics of my thesis! I have a long way to go towards completing my research and there are many avenues I need to pursue to try and uncover as much as I can about the collections and their journey. I cannot wait to dive even deeper down the rabbit hole! 

Works Cited:
Kopytoff, Igor. 1986. "The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process". The Social Life of Things. New York: Cambridge University.
 
Editor’s Note: Mary Simonds is a first year MMSt student with an honours BA in Anthropology from the University of Western Ontario. She is currently completing an internship at the very same museum where she is conducting her thesis research, the Museum of Ontario Archaeology in London, Ontario. She is interning as a Collections/Curatorial assistant and was very excited about the MOA’s “AMAZING collections facility and high-tech archaeology lab” which she “freaked out” over on her first day.

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