The UMAC 2002 Conference was held in Sydney and Canberra in Australia from Sunday 29 September - Friday 4 October 2002.
The title and theme of the conference was: Exposing and Exploiting the Distinct Character of University Museums and Collections.
Curating a Virtual Museum: The Collection of the Australian Institute of Archaeology, Melbourne
The History of the Collection and of the Institute's Archaeological Research
The story of the Institute and of its place in the educational and religious life of Australia has been told by others. 1 I shall outline here the history of the collection and the archaeological research profile that the Institute has had. 2
The antiquities collection of the Institute containing over 4000 objects is one of the three significant antiquities collections in Australia, the others being the Nicholson Museum in the University of Sydney and the antiquities collection of the National Gallery of Victoria. The strengths of the Institute's collection are in the eastern Mediterranean and the Near East, with the largest number of objects being from Israel, Egypt, Mesopotamia and Cyprus. Greco-Roman material is well represented from all these regions, making the collection a significant one for classical antiquities. There is also a small collection of Greek and Roman coins. In addition, there are a small number of objects from other regions including prehistoric Europe, Asia, the Pacific, and Australia.
The collection was formed for the study of the Bible by the Institute's founder Walter J. Beasley, who had a collection from the 1930s before the foundation of the Institute in 1946. First he, then the Institute, funded excavations and in return received a division of finds, especially pottery, from which the collection was formed. These included biblical sites, but also a range of sites in the regions surrounding Israel, which shows the broad idea about the study of the Bible through archaeology which Beasley had. The sites include, in the Holy Land, Jericho (dug by J. Garstang in the 1930s), the Jericho area and Jerusalem (K. Kenyon, 1952-8), Lachish (D. Ussishkin, 1973-81); in Mesopotamia, Nimrud (M. Mallowan, 1949-63), from where ivories, cuneiform clay tablets and a gypsum cuneiform tablet of Ashurnasirpal II (883-859 BC) came to the collection; in Cyprus, Vounous (E. and J. Stewart, 1937-8), a bronze age cemetery site, which was the first Australian excavation in the Mediterranean region 3; Myrtou Pigadhes (J. du Plat Taylor and V. Seton-Williams, 1950-1) (fig.8), a bronze age to iron age sanctuary; Stephania (J.B. Hennessy, 1951), a bronze age cemetery; in Turkey, Çatal Hüyük (J. Mellaart, 1950s), a neolithic urban site; and in Libya, Tocra (G.R.H. Wright, 1954), a Greek site of the archaic and later periods. More recently, sites in the Levant dug by the University of Sydney and Macquarie University have been assisted directly and indirectly by the Institute.
The collection has also been enhanced by purchases and gifts. The Flinders Petrie collection, with strengths from Egypt and from Palestine, was given by his widow Hilda in 1949 because of the Australian connection with his grandfather Matthew Flinders, the early nineteenth century explorer of the Australian coastline. From Cyprus, a large number of vases from the de la Penha collection was bought in 1953 and gifts of vases came from Zeno Peirides (fig.7). Other objects were bought legally from antiquities dealers in Iraq, and in London from the auction house Sotheby's and the dealer Charles Ede.
Members of staff of the Institute have taken part in archaeological expeditions. John Thompson, the first director, and others participated in excavations of the American Schools of Oriental Research at Roman Jericho and at Moabite Diban in Jordan. The directors Gordon Garner worked at the American Schools of Oriental Research at Caesarea Maritima in 1974 and Piers Crocker was active in the Sudan before coming to Australia in 1986.
Curating the Virtual Museum
Since the move in 1998 from Ancient Times House in the centre of Melbourne, the collection has been stored in a warehouse at Nunawading in outer Melbourne. I have worked at this location from November 2001 until December 2002 as curator of the Institute's antiquities collection. The collection was wrapped and packed in cardboard boxes, and my first task was to order the boxes in the same order as the display in Ancient Times House, and to open the boxes to familiarise myself with the collection.
The aim of the project was to photograph the collection, to create a database and to prepare the information and photographs as a Virtual Museum to be placed on the Internet. I was advised on the IT aspects of the project by Dr. Geoffery Jenkins.
The first task was the development of the system to photograph the objects and to record the data on the database. This required a computer and a Sony Digital Handicam DCR-TRV330E camera. One of the innovations of this project is that we intend to photograph every object with both still and video images. Since many of the objects are round pots, the video image records one revolution of the object on a turntable. Inexpensive technology to produce video images for the Internet has only recently become available, so that this Virtual Museum will have video images of most objects, unlike other Virtual Museums which were developed in the last few years.
In the early phase of the project, I developed the turntable system (fig.1). It is basically a record player turntable, which is turned by the contact of a rubber wheel driven by a Meccano motor. The turntable and the computer needed to be on separate tables, so a wire leads from the motor to the table with the computer and the motor is operated by a switch beside the computer. This means that the turntable could be operated and the photograph taken, using the mouse on the computer, by the operator sitting at the computer.
The background for the photographs was a sheet of matt grey laminex, which was appropriate for the range of textures and colours of the antiquities. It also gave an appropriate level of reflectiveness for the two lights, which were used to illuminate the objects. A piece of laminex covered the turntable and, in the photographs, the edge of the laminex on the turntable was barely visible against the laminex background. This gave a consistent background of grey to the photographs.
The objects were set up in the centre of the turntable, and they were sometimes placed on a stand if appropriate (fig.2). For the still images, an inventory number and scale were placed in the photograph (fig.3). These were removed for the video images, but they will be added to the video images when they are prepared for the Virtual Museum. The still images record the principal view of the object, for example, a jug with the handle visible at the side. To create a video image, the objects were rotated through two revolutions. For the final version, a single revolution will be edited from these images commencing with the principal view of the still image. After being taken, the images are burnt onto compact discs for permanent storage.
The digital images are documentary images, which, with the state of presently available technology, are not as high quality as traditional photographs. They will however provide a satisfactory record for scholars and others, from which it will be possible to have a reasonable idea of what is in the collection for future study and photography.
At the same time information about the objects is entered on the database. There is a database of the contents of the boxes which includes the box number and a list of all objects with inventory numbers by number and without inventory numbers by description, which are stored in the box but not photographed individually (fig.4). There is a database of objects which notes the box in which they are stored, a short description of the object, the inventory number and the numbers of the still and video images (fig.5). The 'Vounous' reference gives tomb and object number for some objects from Vounous on Cyprus, which have duplicate inventory numbers (fig.6). Thus, these objects with the same inventory number have a unique description in the database.
The database can have information added to it, and it is anticipated that full information about identification, date, provenance and publication will be added in future. (A feature called 'Previous' has information about objects, which was put on computer several years ago, which is ready to be transferred to the relevant object entries on the database).
The aim is to have a Virtual Museum, which, in its initial stages, has 600 of the most significant objects and is representative of the geographical strengths of the collection. The great majority of objects photographed so far are pottery and, in particular, well preserved pots.
Publications about the Curation of Antiquities in Australia
The Institute has a significant research library with strengths in the archaeology of the Near East and the study of the Bible. During the course of my work, I have also collected for the Institute library catalogues and other publications related to the curation of antiquities in Australia. No comprehensive collection of such publications exists. Being in many cases ephemeral in nature, they are often not known beyond the institution where the exhibition took place or where the antiquities are held. Thus, valuable research is often not known to a wider audience. It is hoped that this collection at the Institute will redress this and make a resource for research and study available beside an important collection of antiquities.
(fig.1) View of the turntable and computer system
(fig.2) Wide-mouthed vase, Badarian ware, pre-dynastic, 5th millennium BC, from Egypt
(fig.3) Black glaze bolsal (cup), Attic, early 4th century BC, from Tocra, Libya.
(fig.4) The database with information about the contents of the boxes
(fig.5) The database with information about the objects
(fig.6) Jug, Red Polished ware, Early Cypriot, late 3rd-early 2nd millennium BC, from Vounous, Cyprus.
(fig.7) Barrel jug, Cypriot White Painted V ware, Cypro-Archaic II, 600-475 BC, Gift of Zeno Peirides
(fig.8) Male head, limestone, early Cypro-Classical, 480-450 BC, from Myrtou Pigadhes, Cyprus
2 These topics are covered by G.G. Garner, 'The Australian Institute of Archaeology', in C.A. Hope and J.K. Zimmer (eds), Catalogue of Ancient Middle Eastern Pottery from Palestine, Cyprus and Egypt in the Faculty of Art Gallery RMIT, June 1983; & Essays on Australian Contributions to the Archaeology of the Ancient Near East (Melbourne, 1983), pp.127-8, and in more detail by P.T. Crocker, 'The antiquities collection at Ancient Times House, Melbourne', in T.W. Hillard, R.A. Kearsley, C.E.V. Nixon, and A.M. Nobbs (eds), Ancient History in a Modern University Vol.1: The Ancient Near East, Greece and Rome (Sydney, Grand Rapids, Michigan and Cambridge, U.K., 1998), pp.38-46.
3 J.R.B. Stewart was an Australian who later became Professor of Archaeology at the University of Sydney, and in this sense I call the excavation that he led the first Australian excavation, although under the auspices of the British School at Athens. Other Australians may have participated in excavations before this, but unlike Stewart, they did not play a significant role in archaeology in Australia.
Copyright © Nicholas Hardwick 2002.