There are times when the job of museum curator is more like that of a stand-up comedian. Not that I’m claiming to be an archaeological Peter Kay or Michael McIntyre I hasten to say, but I did find myself in the uncomfortable position of doing a stand-up routine last Friday evening when there was a student social at Manchester Museum.
Organised by Naomi Kashiwagi, Student Engagement Coordinator at Whitworth Art Gallery and Manchester Museum, my job was to show the students around the new galleries for half an hour. I agonised in advance: this was an event for young people on a Friday evening and some of them would have had a drink or two at the temporary bar in reception. Something unduly formal was not likely to go down very well. A light touch and an injection of humour were called for.
I consulted Louise, one of the Visitor Services Assistants at the Museum. Louise took a dim view of my suggestion that I tell some funny stories, complaining that the last time I tried to tell her a joke it had taken her a week to understand it. Admittedly there’s probably a niche market for archaeological jokes because inevitably something always gets lost in translation but these were archaeology students so in theory they ought to ‘get’ the jokes.
I tried out a humorous anecdote about how when the Roman legions were about to invade Britain, the soldiers took fright and the Emperor Claudius had to send his Greek freedman Narcissus from Rome to give them a pep-talk. Narcissus and the commander of the expeditionary force, Aulus Plautius, mounted the rostrum to address the troops. Seeing the commander and the Greek former slave standing side-by-side, one wag shouted ‘Yo Saturnalia!’ as an ironic reference to the Roman mid-winter festival of Saturnalia during which slaves swapped places with their masters and the masters became slaves.
I don’t think Louise was very impressed with the Saturnalia joke but Christian, another Visitor Services Assistant, offered to go with me and laugh at the funny bits. For the next thirty minutes I was on very thin ice as I guided the visitors around the galleries trying to tease out humorous anecdotes from the exhibits. In the second table display case there is an ancient Etruscan votive offering clay model of a woman’s womb. That was a great prompt to tell them about the ancient Greeks and their completely mad theory about the wandering womb. The Roman Manchester display provided an opportunity to talk about coy references to Roman soldiers’ off-duty activities in 1970s excavation reports. In the Egyptian gallery an entertaining mnemonic helps you remember which bit of the human viscera goes in which pot in the set of Canopic jars and which of the Sons of Horus looks after it.
I fear there were more than a few ‘tumbleweed moments’ but everyone clapped when I’d finished so I was relieved to go and get a beer afterwards. About a hundred people attended and the first indications are that they enjoyed it. If we do it again I’ll be sure to dust off some more archaeologically themed jokes. On second thoughts maybe that’s not such a good idea….
You can find out more about similar events and activities at Naomi’s blog – http://studentengagementmanchester.wordpress.com/