Afterlife of Heritage Blog – Rob McCombe
The opportunity to participate in Afterlife of Heritage project came as I’d recently completed my doctorate and was keen to continue developing my research but felt a little uncertain in what direct to turn. I felt that, given my background in museum and collections histories, I had a lot to offer to one of the institutions involved in the project. The main problem that I faced was my specialisation in medieval collections; few institutions in the North West hold significant collections of this period, meaning that I’d have to engage with and research in areas previously unfamiliar to myself. In itself this was hardly a problem – but where to start?
Inspiration came from an unexpected direction. Attending the inaugural Manchester based Museums Showoff (http://museumsshowoff.wordpress.com/) I listened to Manchester Museum’s Egyptology Curator Dr Campbell Price deliver a brief but fascinating presentation on the historical unwrapping of mummies in the nineteenth century, emphasising the social and cultural cachet such events had once possessed and reflecting of the often hidden context of these remains that few visitors had access to.
This exploration of forgotten or little known aspects and meanings attached to widely recognised exhibits linked closely to the work that I’ve conducted in to the lives of Anglo-Saxon objects; tracing them through their excavations, early display in private antiquarian collections and their entry into public spheres of existence. Drawing upon theories of identity and the increasingly large body of work on object biographies I explore the shift is in interpretation and meanings associated with objects, arguing that such things can be actively rejected, simply forgotten or popularised to the point where an artefact becomes iconic.
The next step then, was to contact Dr Price and discuss the possibility of working with the archives and developing an outcome for the Museum. Campbell proved enthusiastic about exploring the collections, albeit slightly resigned to the fact that, yet again, it was the mummies rather than another aspect of the collection that was receiving renewed interest. I explained my approach and research interests; particularly focusing upon the work I’d done exploring the exhumations of St Cuthbert in the nineteenth century. We were both enthusiastic about uncovering more of the collection’s rich history, about making available to viewers more means of looking at these artefacts than was possible in the current re-display.
Unsurprisingly, I was far from the only researcher interested in working with this particular collection, so before I could begin it seemed best to have at least an idea of what others wanted to pursue. Arranging a meeting with Bryan Sitch, Campbell Price, Anna Garnett, Alex McDonough and Katherine Crouch we were able to sort out who wanted to work with what. The result will be a variety of approaches to a single collection, providing a fascinating glimpse of the breadth and depth of work being conducted by researchers across Manchester and Salford.
Once the various projects and areas of interest were agreed upon, I was able to begin the research. After brief forays into the archives and stores of the Museum I began my research with a detailed exploration of the Annual reports, Committee reports, contemporary newspaper articles and relevant secondary literature. What has already become obvious is the wealth of contextual material available to explore the meanings surrounding the treatment of Egyptian remains in the nineteenth century. What I’ll be discussing in later posts in how I come to focus this research and pursue more of the primary material at the Museum itself, from correspondences and minutes to images and text. The ultimate purpose of this work is of course to produce both viable academic research and something that the Museum visitor can access. Quite what form this will take is still being discussed but I’m looking forward to sharing the research.