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Working with Wellcome: A virtual student placement

A guest post by University of Manchester museology student Molly Osbourne, describing a virtual placement working on a little-known aspect of the Egyptology collection.

The first thing I want to point out about this placement is that due to the pandemic, it was self-organised, virtual placement through the University of Manchester’s MA programme, Art Gallery and Museum Studies. With this being virtual, I was not to visit the museum, and all my research was done at home. After the placement ended, I was invited in to go on an object “hunt”, and finally was able to see some of the collection. This has been both incredibly rewarding and challenging. It was research-based, hosted by Campbell Price, with the aim to find the status of a number of stelae and cast replicas from the collection originally amassed by the pharmaceutical baron Sir Henry Solomon Wellcome (1853-1936). The Wellcome Collection is renowned for housing medical objects from all of history, though Wellcome himself was an avid collector of Egyptian antiquities. There are index cards of these auctioned pieces catalogued by this institution, contained detailed descriptions of the objects, a variety of types of the numbering systems used to track these objects, and their prices. After Wellcome’s death, a trust was made, who decided that many objects should be dispersed worldwide, including Manchester. There are more than the eighteen I have researched also in the anthropology and archaeology department, though with the time limit of fifteen days, eighteen seemed like a reasonable amount to work with.

Me in front of Manchester Museum when I visited in June 2021.

My main highlights have been collaborating with many people associated with Wellcome research, and of course working with Campbell. These include Kenneth Griffin (Egypt Centre, Swansea), Alexandra Eveleigh (Wellcome Collection, London), Lee McStein (Monument Men), and Rosalie David, the curator of Manchester Museum at the time of the transfer of Wellcome objects. I met with Ken and Alexandra over Zoom, where much of current research is being done was discussed. Ken’s typology of stickers found on objects will be beneficial for when I am able to visit the museum and find these objects myself. Alexandra collaborated over emails, providing answers for the many questions I had about those who represented Wellcome at auction houses and the location of slips that are missing from my research. Through this collaboration, it came to light that the casts at Manchester, were given the same number system as those transported to the Science Museum, which was most unusual. I met with Lee McStein towards the end of the experience, where I learnt about his work with the casts, unlike the other collaborators who aided with the research of the stelae. The casts, being owned by Manchester, have been passed on to the Lee to do amazing work on photogrammetry (making three-dimensional, digital images) and the casts, which casts a new light on the production of these casts and the decoration on them.

Through collaboration, I attended a lecture by Lee McStein and a Transcribathon event held by the Wellcome Collection in March. The lecture provided information about a photogrammetry project being done on a selection of Manchester replicas that have barely been seen by the public. This research is very beneficial as these casts portray the birth chapel of Nectanebis I, a chapel that has had restricted access over the years, with only a few people going inside to see it. The Transcribathon was a one-day event, where people from the museum sector with objects connected to Wellcome met to practice transcribing the Wellcome slips and transit records of the Science Museum. On some of the slips, there is a book reference, that refers to the auction catalogues, but also the information I believed was missing from the slips before, including the date of the sale, the auction house, and the lot number.

The Wellcome slip for the object labelled A78283

I learnt so much about the transfer of Wellcome objects from the meeting with Rosalie David, and most of what Rosalie said is supported by documents and letters. Correspondence between the Wellcome Collection and Manchester Museum state that the museums would apply for the objects they wanted for their collections, and “[the Welcome Collections] wanted good homes for their collection”. As the representative of Manchester Museum, Rosalie said the museum would be a good fit for the objects as they are a university museum, and would use the objects for their teaching programme, as well as their outreach programme and for their new display they were planning at the time. Altogether, “it took at least a year for everything to go through” and the transfer to be completed.

Screenshot of Campbell, Rosalie and I having our meeting over Zoom.

It wasn’t until towards the end of the placement, I was able to see a few of the objects and copies of the slips held at Manchester Museum, that Campbell sent over. These photos were extremely helpful, as it provided new slips for the objects, I was not able to find at the beginning of the research, and even some new information altogether on objects unrelated to the original eighteen pieces.

Image of the stela labelled A211251

I would like to thank my course convenor, Andy, and Campbell for this opportunity, and those who have and will keep collaborating while I do more research.

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