I have just returned from helping to facilitate a workshop on interpretation organised by the British Museum International Training Programme (ITP) at the Nubian Museum, in Aswan, southern Egypt. I was delighted to join Dr Anna Garnett, Curator of the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, and Jane Batty and Stuart Frost, of the BM’s Interpretation Dept. In addition to fellow facilitators Jackline Besigye (Uganda National Museum), Huzoor Choudhry (Huzoor Designs, India), Vandana Prapanna (CSMVA, Mumbai), we were given a wonderful Nubian welcome – with lively music and participatory dancing – and the chance to meet some 30 Egyptian and Sudanese colleagues.
The Nubian Museum opened in 1997 and I had previously visited in 2005. It is one of those rare – and fortunate – museums that appears to defy the aging process, and I was struck by how fresh the displays still appeared, despite being relatively unchanged since my visit 13 years earlier. The Museum provided a perfect venue for discussion about interpreting Egyptian and Sudanese collections. Facilitators benefitted from a personal, introductory guided tour of the public galleries and behind the scenes spaces by the Director, Dr Hosny Abd el Rheem.
Bright, colourfully decorated education spaces contrasted with the darker, more dramatically lit display galleries. Our group were impressed by the award-winning architecture of the Museum, which is sympathetic to local building traditions. Especially effective use is made of outside spaces, including a reconstruction of a traditional Nubian House, an immersive ‘cave’ incorporating relocated rock art, and a sweeping amphitheatre space for major public performances. The way the Museum tackled the representation of living Nubian culture – particularly surrounding issues of displacement during the construction of the Aswan High Dam – was noteworthy.
During the workshop, it was a privilege to reconnect with the vibrant ITP network on Egyptian soil, building on relationships forged through the international Summer programme, to which Manchester Museum has played host for some 10 years. Great to see several ITP past fellows and to meet new colleagues from the Ministry of Antiquities.
Discussion of interpretation focussed, inevitably, on label and panel text-writing, in addition to alternative strategies such as multimedia and performance/events. We agreed on the importance of that strange alchemy of ‘curatorial’ and ‘interpretation’ approaches to interpretation. Jane Batty introduced the BM’s very useful ‘Top 10 Tips’ for effective interpretation. I was especially struck by the importance of physically connecting text to specific objects rather than letting text float alone, in the hope that someone will read it.
I have always been an advocate of object numbers on labels – the British Museum apparently less so. An excellent point that was raised in my discussion group was that it is perhaps only appropriate to dispense with accession numbers on labels if you have a reliable, working online catalogue to look the object up in or a comprehensive published catalogue for your temporary or permanent displays. Lacking these tools, accession numbers still seem a valuable tool for both collections management and finding out further information.
Throughout the almost week-long preparation for and delivery of the workshop, it really hit home just how similar our challenges are – from the biggest museum to the smallest, from Mumbai, to Cairo, Aswan to Manchester. ITP is not simply about “telling” other people how to “do” interpretation the British Museum way, but creating a genuine dialogue that can lead to collaborative interpretation. With so many excellent museum collections in Egypt and Sudan, and after this opportunity to discuss common approaches at length, I look forward to working more closely with Egyptian and Sudanese museum colleagues in future.