This workshop was organized by Thomas Kiely, Curator of the Cyprus Collection at the British Museum, and Georgia Mallin, of the UK partnerships team, with the intention of promoting interest in ancient Cyprus and supporting curators around the UK with Cypriot collections that they wish to develop but who may not have access to specialists to study or display them. This preliminary meeting was intended to gauge the level of interest and support for setting up something like an SSN for Cypriot collections in the same way that a successful SSN has been set up for numismatic collections.
Georgia and Thomas welcomed curators from a number of regional museums in the Greece and Rome study room, and, after an introduction from Lesley Fitton, Keeper of Greece and Rome Department, Thomas Kiely gave an overview of collecting in Cyprus during the later 19th century and introduced some of the British Museum’s collections, collectors and earlier curators. Thomas showed how it was possible to recognize material dispersed to regional museums during the late 19th century using sketches of tomb groups in the BM archives. Thomas referred to the thrill of finding treasures amongst misidentified objects in collections, saying “I love bad data”. Duplicate material from excavations at Amathus, for example, was distributed to regional museums by the British Museum.
Another source of Cypriot material was the large collections acquired by the Cesnola brothers, American diplomats who spent time on the island during the later 19th century. Alessandro Cesnola (1839–1914) built up a large collection with a view to selling it to a major institution and a large and expensive photograph album was published to promote interest. The V&A also transferred material that was considered insufficiently aesthetic to warrant its retention as art. This appeared to be symptomatic of the occasionally snooty attitude that was taken to Cypriot collections in the past in comparison to Greek, Roman and Egyptian collections. Yet it was clear from what a number of curators said that the somewhat rough-hewn appearance of Cypriot objects made them more accessible to audiences than Classical material, and Cypriot ceramic figurines seem to be very popular with children.
Lindy Crewe, A.G.Leventis Curator, spoke about resources of the Cyprus American Archaeological Research Institute (CAARI) in Nicosia. Lindy was in the midst of moving to take up her duties in Cyprus. Having previously worked in Manchester as a Museum and Academic Joint Appointment (MAJA), she is very familiar with Manchester Museum’s Cypriot collection.
Anna Reeve, PhD researcher at the University of Leeds, talked about her work on Cypriot object and collection biographies. She uses object biographies to trace the networks of collectors through whose hands the material passed and is finding shared links in her study of collections in Leeds, Harrogate and Hull. Jenny Durrant from the Royal Albert Memorial Museum found sources of funding enabling conservation work on Cypriot pottery that had suffered damage. Chrissy Partheni talked about her work on the Liverpool collections, in particular Kouklia. It was great to see some social history photographs of the excavations of the sites too. Vicky Donnellan from the British Museum discussed the results of her survey of Classical collections, including Cypriot material, in the UK.
After lunch Thomas took us on a tour of the Cypriot gallery in the British Museum and then showed us Cypriot collections in store. Only a small proportion of the collection is on display at any one time. The final part of afternoon was given over to free discussion. It was clear that there is support for keeping in touch, and for holding a more formal meeting about Cypriot collections. At this public meeting curators could make longer presentations about their collections, with the potential ultimate aim of creating a touring exhibition of BM and partnership museum Cypriot material.
I proposed broadening the scope to include Turkish and Ottoman material, coins and even contemporary objects, although we were reminded that anything earlier than 1850 constitutes an antiquity in Cyprus. From the perspective of Manchester Museum with its thematic collecting project, Cyprus serves as a fascinating case study in migration, acculturation and integration because the island is located at the crossroads of the eastern Mediterranean and was settled by Phoenicians, Greeks, native Cypriot people, Romans and people from Asia Minor and the Levant, not to mention movement of people during the later Medieval and modern periods. Anja Ulbrich, A.G. Leventis Curator of the Cypriot Collection at the Ashmolean Museum, pointed out although subtle differences are seen in assemblages from different parts of the island, it is difficult to distinguish them because of the widespread popularity of ancient Greek cultural material on the island and in the Levant.
I got a lot out of the day and I suspect the other curators did too and I look forward to a future meeting, perhaps in the North West, where interest in Cypriot material can be developed further.
Deputy Head of Collections