Bristol and Avon Archaeological Society

The Problems of Curation at Bristol City Museum

On Wednesday January 10, 2024
Gail Boyle, Senior Curator of Archaeology for Bristol Culture & Creative Industries.

As senior curator of archaeological and world cultures’ material at Bristol Museum, Gail Boyle has to manage and understand a mass of items that have accumulated over 200 years.  An often challenging task is to respond to requests about what is held at the museum and this work can be very demanding. Sometimes the request can be couched in highly technical language and Gail gave an example where the language used by German researchers was pretty much opaque.  Another issue is how realistic the request can be in terms of the capacity of the museum to respond, such as when a request about pigeon bones meant looking through 290 boxes, often of mixed bones.  Big response searches can be expensive in terms of use of curatorial time and sometimes requests entail so much work that they have to be declined, especially as the policy of no charge encourages requests.  Sometimes requests are so vague and general that it is hard to know where to start!  Making things even more difficult is the fact that with computers being a very recent resource, many older records are written on paper which can be hard to decipher.  If a research request relates to a large body of items, then the job can be facilitated by the sampling of just part of some of these collections and for this flow charts have been devised which make it clearer how to do the selection.  Then again, objects and records, including excavation reports, can be reassessed in the light of modern techniques, necessitating updating museum records, or even reworking them.

Another challenge is addressing a request that would require taking a small portion of an object to determine its chemical signature.  A hard decision has to be made whether to accommodate this request as this might damage the integrity of the object.  With any luck, only the nature of the surface of an item need be ascertained, where upon a portable x-ray fluorescence piece of equipment can be used (pXRF); this excites the atoms of the exterior of the object in a way that enables identification of its material.  Using this process, a seemingly genuine dagger’s pommel was found not to be of ivory as claimed, but paste painted over to resemble ivory.

The’ Decolonisation’ process requires knowledge of how items were acquired and perhaps whether they should be returned because the museum has material from all over the world.  There is the matter of private collections that have been gifted to the museum.  One such is the Fawcett collection. Dr. Fawcett was serving in the army medical service in Macedonia during the First World War and became interested in objects from the ancient world to be found locally.  He was wealthy and after the war began his collection mainly of smallish objects of stone or bronze.  As he progressed he wanted to systematise and show development of fashion and manufacture.  He was not interested in where the objects came from, or how they fitted into the context of an archaeological investigation; he simply went to dealers and the like and bought what fitted his collection.  However, there was always the risk of buying a fake so when objects began to turn up from the ancient state of Luristan (In Iraq) he eagerly entered the market, but the locals who were finding these objects realised there was a lot of interest and began to manufacture fakes.  It is estimated that about a third of all the objects claimed to be from Luristan are indeed  fakes, so the Fawcett collection of these objects were analysed using pXRF.  The results were then compared against pRXF test results that have been gathered from excavated objects with a known Luristan provenance.  Happily for the museum the comparison showed that the Fawcett material was genuine and had not been faked.

Dr.Fawcett kept very detailed records of how he acquired the items of his collection and their descriptions, but not necessarily their provenance; one item simply had “Co. Antrim, Ireland“as a record. Thus. by no possible description could he be termed an Archaeologist.  If he came across an item that seemed a better example of something he already possessed, he would simply sell off the one and keep the new one. Thus, items from his collection have ended up all over the world.

Meanwhile, his meticulously kept written records have been digitized, a mammoth task, by our treasurer, Steve Hastings and are now available online.  Gratifyingly for Steve and Gail, researchers have been accessing this record for its content, which has made all the effort worthwhile.

(Summarised by Bev Knot)