The fascinating Museum of Antiquities at UNE has grown from very humble beginnings fifty years ago. Two men who have been instrumental in establishing and developing this outstanding facility share their recollections and impressions of the museum with us.
Dr Maurice Kelly (formerly a long serving lecturer in the Department of Classics and Ancient History) was the Museum’s first Honorary Curator in its founding years. The current Honorary Curator, Dr Pat Watters is the creator of many of the high quality displays much admired by students, staff and people from the wider community who visit the museum.
> Dr Kelly, what do you recall of the early days, when only a few artefacts had been gathered?
Interestingly, we didn’t start out to set up a museum. It grew from a small collection of fine artefacts that had been assembled to support courses in Classics.
They were housed in a couple of glass cases in the corridor outside the Classics Department. The energetic University Registrar, Tom Lamble had been pressing for the establishment of a museum and arranged funding to allow us to purchase an artefact each year.
Most of our objects were bought from Charles Ede of London – a great adviser in those tentative days. So the collection grew and was moved to two rooms in the Faculty of Arts building.
But the greatest changes came when we acquired some excellent collections such as Eric Dunlop’s fine collection of ancient coins, the Woite Collection and especially the extensive Stewart Collection of materials from Cyprus. When Isabel McBryde donated her extensive collection of Aboriginal artefacts, we needed to care for a large number of artefacts and to display them in a secure place. So in 1988 we moved to the current location on the ground floor of the Arts building.
Quite a lot of materials from cultures that still exist, “ethnographic” materials, have been acquired and always attract interest. The location has been a huge improvement; the materials are in an air conditioned environment, they’re brilliantly displayed there and they can be well protected by electronic alarm systems. Much of what you see in the present museum has been the work of Dr Pat Watters, who has been the Honorary Curator since 1984.
Because of space limitations even in the present location, the area outside the Museum has been employed to house quite a lot of material too. One case holds displays based on artefacts gathered by the former Department of Archaeology at UNE from sites they excavated here in New England and in southern Queensland. So there’s plenty of variety to catch visitors’ attention.
> What types of materials are in the Museum? Do you have particular favourites?
The materials cover the ancient Near Eastern cultures, the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, South-east Asia, the Americas, Australia and the Pacific Islands. The whole museum is a lovely place to visit. I love all the objects, but the lekythos bought from my father’s estate is certainly a favourite, and the Greek plate purchased quite recently from the McCredie Fund is also a nice piece. I find the Stewart materials that cover a span of 6,000 years of culture on the island of Cyprus to be particularly interesting.
The archaeologist who assembled that collection, James Stewart, was captured by the Germans during World War II.
His story is really quite an exciting one, with shades of Indiana Jones. As well as these larger acquisitions there are ‘new’ items being added from time to time, from generous individuals’ donations. We have been very pleased to receive them, and we are keen to acquire more.
But there are some rather quirky items in the museum, too, like the mummified foot from ancient Egypt that people find fascinating, and there’s an oil jug in the form of a pig, from Etruria. The oil was poured out from the pig’s snout, which must have amused guests at an Etruscan dinner party 2,500 years ago.
We are proud of the excellent set of very lightweight hunting equipment used by the Bushmen of the Kalahari as they chased animals over vast distances. Remember the film, “The Gods Must be Crazy’”? You would have seen this type of equipment in that film.
> Dr Watters, how have you gone about developing these attractive displays during your many years as Honorary Curator?
One thing that has to be considered after making sure the items are secure is how to keep them out of the sunlight, because that can be damaging. Each cabinet has a map of the area the artefacts come from, and each item has a short informative caption.
Often a model such as Tutankhamun’s tomb is included for extra interest. Specially built formwork lets each item get the necessary amount of light.
We have developed a comparative timeline of “What Happened and When”, so visitors can see what events were occurring at the same time on other continents. But people find the touch screen programs interesting. They are a pleasant way of finding out more about some of our displays.
One that is especially popular is the program on the “Hobbit”, believed to represent a species of small humans of extreme antiquity whose remains were located in Flores in Indonesia by UNE’s Professor Mike Morwood.
We have a committee of dedicated volunteer supporters who lend a hand in maintaining the museum, using their expertise and skills. We could hardly manage without them.
> Who uses the museum?
It is intended to be used by students and staff across faculties in their course work, or even simply to spend time in a quiet setting amongst stimulating objects. But so important are some of our holdings such as the Stewart Collection, upon which academics from Australia and even from overseas have spent time carrying out cutting edge research on the items we hold. We show through the museum a large number of patrons who are students from primary and secondary schools, studying everything from Art to Ancient History to Science.
We try to customise the visits to suit the students’ interests. And we’re always delighted when we have visitors from the community. Some of the warmest comments in our Visitors’ Book have been made by visitors from overseas: one written compliment came from an employee of “The Musee de Louvre” in Paris. We were pretty chuffed at that!
> What does the future hold for the Museum of Antiquities?
Our main ambition is to share the museum with as many people as possible, because we believe that although it is not a large museum, it is a real jewel. So we’ll be holding events aimed at letting people know where we are and what we are planning.
The research on our Cypriot materials will go on and will lead to several important publications. We are hoping to receive materials from ancient Pella in northern Greece and hope to mount displays of that material in the Dixson Library.
Coming up on the 6 March as part of our fiftieth anniversary will be the opening of a photographic display “Underwater Archaeology” in Dixson Library, in conjunction with the “Istituto Italia di Cultura”.
In August we will conduct the fourteenth in the Maurice Kelly Lecture series, set up to honour our first Honorary Curator. These are always on a topic related to museums and are a highlight on the cultural landscape of the University and the Armidale community.
It would be good if we could add to our holdings of Egyptian materials, but these are much sought after and are therefore expensive. Still, we’ll be doing our best.
Times are very different at the museum in 2009, and they are just as exciting in their own way as the early years were. We think there’s always a good reason to spend time in the museum!
> Thank you Dr Kelly and Dr Watters.