[Seniors in the SOAN department have the opportunity of pursuing a field-based research project that culminates in a senior thesis. I’ve asked our seniors to briefly describe the research project they are beginning to configure for fieldwork in the remainder of our academic year.]
During the summer of 2014 – the summer after my first year studying anthropology at the University of Puget Sound – I worked as a docent at a small Egyptian museum in my then-hometown of San Jose, California. The Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum, housed in a replica Egyptian temple surrounded by rose gardens, was packed with mummies, gilded sarcophagi, and sleek granite sculptures of goddesses, but one museum object that only our most observant visitors noticed was a square piece of carved stone, which was affixed to the ceiling at the top of a stairwell. This was not a ‘true artifact’ – it was a plaster cast of the ‘real thing,’ the famous Dendera Zodiac ceiling-carving. Casts were common at our small, private museum – any object with a green information plaque was not authentic, but rather a copy of an original which another museum held. Although I had learned during training to tell visitors “if it has a green plaque it’s a copy,” it only occurred to me later that I knew very little about where in the world most of the original artifacts were actually kept, and I resolved to find out more.
My initial research into the Dendera Zodiac led me to a disturbing story: the actual Zodiac can be found at the Louvre in Paris, because a French antiques dealer had, in the 1800s, used saws and gunpowder to remove it from the Egyptian temple into which it had been built and to carry it back to France. At that time, I was reading a book called Finders Keepers: A Tale of Archaeological Plunder and Obsession – a fascinating, if somewhat sensationalizing, popular account of the theft of Native American artifacts from sites in the American Southwest. These parallel stories, showing the ways in which archaeological material has been stolen and stored away, fascinated me and inspired a series of undergraduate anthropological research projects into the complex world of museum collections. I wanted to know what would bring someone to go to such lengths to take possession of an artifact, removing it from its archaeological context or from its rightful owners.
There’s something almost magical about a physical object, an artifact, a tool or a ceramic that someone crafted with their own hands, perhaps a very long time ago. The power of artifacts is why we’re drawn to museums – for the chance to be in the presence of objects with history. But this attraction to the past can turn into a dangerous sort of greed to possess these objects – even at the expense of their own longevity. The Dendera Zodiac remained in good condition in Egypt for over a thousand years; when it was removed by the French, both the zodiac relief and the temple in which it stood retained gunpowder damage. Our love of artifacts can be what destroys them.
Yet modern museums are valuable teaching tools, places for people to have contact with objects – sometimes even physical contact, through ‘touch tables’ and experiential educational programs. This year, I will be conducting a thesis investigation into the ways museums balance the often contradictory interests of preservation, education, and use regarding their physical collections, and how the often problematic history of the museum as an institution contributes to the narratives museums present as ‘keepers of culture.’ I will be interviewing museum staff, stakeholders, and visitors, as well as visiting museums myself and digging into the history of museums through historical documents. For hundreds of years, museums have been a way cities, states, nations, and the world define their identities – and now, we can begin to better understand our own modern identities by looking back to the histories of collection and curation embodied in the museum space.