Help researchers to follow the trail

In our latest #ItsGoodToShare blog post, researcher Anna Reeve talks about her experience of tracking down information about ancient Cypriot collections. She discusses the difficulties posed by not being able to search across museum collections.

Limestone statuette of a bird, ca 600-480 BC, Metropolitan Museum of Art. PD.

How have objects from the ancient world – some of them many thousands of years old – made their way into today’s museums and galleries? Exploring the answers to this question means tracing objects’ collection histories, the people and places with which they have come into contact on their journeys, and when and where they have been bought, sold and exchanged. Often, the researcher’s ability to explore these histories depends on tiny scraps of information which have travelled with the object – maybe a label or inscription on its surface, or a name or catalogue number recorded when it was accessioned into a museum’s collection.

The world-class collections of high-profile collectors tend to carry their histories with them; the provenance of major art works is often well recorded and understood, sometimes in an unbroken chain of ownership which extends back over centuries. I’m interested in the routes travelled by less imposing objects which nevertheless have vital information to tell us about their ancient contexts, and what they have meant to successive excavators, dealers, collectors and curators.

My current research focuses on ancient Cypriot collections, particularly in the Yorkshire region.

For example, the British Vice-Consul in Cyprus from 1865-70, Thomas Backhouse Sandwith, sent ancient Cypriot objects to Yorkshire to be sold in order to relieve famine on the island. How far did these travel once they reached England, and where did they end up? Who collected them, and why? We know some of the answers, but there must be many more objects out there which could potentially be traced to this source.

Based on clues in sales catalogues, archives and newspaper reports, I’m trying to join up the histories of objects from their arrival in England to their deposition in museums. While I would like nothing more than to visit every ancient Cypriot object in the country, and look at their labels, markings and records for myself, the next best thing is to be able to search this data online, and come up with leads to guide the next phase of my research. I’ve always found museum staff immensely helpful in sharing information with me, but with curatorial time at a premium it makes sense for me to do as much ‘desk’ research as I can. Online searchable databases – such as the fantastic South West Collections Explorer – save time and allow research queries to be more targeted.

Sometimes connections can be made between images or descriptions, and otherwise unknown objects which have ended up in museum collections. For example, the illustration to a paper published in 1877 allowed the identification of a jug from ancient Cyprus in the Leeds Museums and Galleries collection. Searchable databases of images help to make more connections of this kind.

In isolation, small museum collections of ancient Cypriot objects have less meaning for visitors than if they can be situated in a wider picture, drawing on existing research and taking their place in a broader conversation. From a researcher’s perspective, finding objects associated with a particular collector can help in understanding their activities and impact, and add important detail to our knowledge of their intellectual and social networks. From the perspective of a museum or gallery, putting collections in context can provide new ways of connecting them with audiences, adding depth and detail to the stories they can tell.

To some extent objects do speak for themselves, but being able to fit them into a bigger picture can add important detail to the history of the objects themselves, and to our understanding of how and where they have travelled, and what they have meant to people along the way.

 

You can read more about what museums would do if they could bring together information from across different collections in a seamless and futureproof way in our #ItsGoodToShare blog series.

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