About a fortnight ago I met Andrea Winn, Curator of Community Engagement at the Manchester Museum, and a member of the Manchester Egyptian community, Shuruq, to choose a lamp to use as a highlight in the displays in the third of our Ancient Worlds galleries. This is the space where the Mediterranean gallery used to be.
We are using some of the display cases to explain why the Museum has so many objects, such as lamps, that are very similar, if not duplicates of one another. The idea is to show as many of these objects as possible rather than leaving them in the store. In this we have been guided by responses to consultation we did in advance of the new displays. Some people felt the Museum did not show as many objects as it could. Displaying the lamps and other objects en masse will create an aesthetic or dramatic effect that will contrast with the experience of visiting the other new galleries.
In the dense displays of objects we will show Roman glass, Roman lamps, Egyptian shabtis, stone vessels, jewellery, fragments and Bronze Age metalwork. We have invited a number of community groups or representatives to select a highlighted object that will have interpretation. The bulk of the objects will not be labelled because it would make for a very different kind of display.
One of the reasons many museums have so many lamps is that they were mass-produced to serve the need for lighting after dark in the ancient world. Olive oil was available in virtually limitless quantities so fuel was not a problem. The lamps were made of fired clay and relatively cheap to replace if they got broken or discoloured. As popular taste changed and new styles came on the market, old-fashioned examples were thrown away. Several thousand years later the small, portable and easily recognised lamps made an interesting souvenir for the discerning traveller. The multitude of different designs made them very popular with collectors. Over the years large numbers of lamps have entered museum collections as the original collectors sought to find a permanent home for them.
Shuruq kindly came into the Museum and we showed her the lamps in our archaeology store. We had a really interesting discussion about the role the lamps played in the ancient world, how they had changed over time and how they illustrated aspects of life at the time, with pictures of gods and goddesses, gladiators and animals. We speculated that in another 2000 years perhaps people will be collecting electrical light fittings and arranging a typology ranging from brass light switches to Bakelite and plastic examples.
One of the lamps that caught Shuruq’s eye shows someone with thick tresses of hair and a crescent moon above. Shuruq commented that it looked a bit like Bob Marley! I don’t envy Shuruq who we have invited to write 75 words as a label for her highlighted lamp. How do you chose one lamp out of so many?