Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Working in a really small public library ...

Today on the documentation project I was chased out for an Hour or so when we had a large tour group come through.

It was too early for a coffee, and I had some notes to write up, so what to do?

It wasn't worth going home, but then I had a brainwave. I googled local library, and discovered there was a local branch library in the town, and it was (a) open and (b) had wifi.

I've written before about working in larger public libraries, but this wasn't the case here - this library was basically a largeish room like a conference room in an old local government building and didn't really have much in the way of workspace provision - just a couple of comfy chairs and an old table with a couple of desktop computers.

But they did have wifi - which claimed to be 5G, and had been moved from some other library as it still had the old name as the SSID, but it worked, or at least it did once I asked the library staff to reset the router for me - apparently a known problem.

I don't actually know what they were using, from my view of it it was a standard looking wifi router -  how it was connected I don't know but I guess over whatever infrastructure the local library corporation provides - I'd guess ADSL.

As a working experience,  it was really good - quiet, I could get my work done, no background clamour of coffee making and enough space to sit comfortably if unergonomically with my laptop on my knees, and notebook on the chair adjoining.

So next time you need a place to sit and use wifi, think about (and support) your local public library!

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Provenance - it's all about provenance

Six months ago, on a plane between Singapore and Melbourne, I watched a remarkable documentary about the attempt by the city of Detroit to sell off the contents of its art museum to defray the city's debts.

The scheme ultimately foundered - because of provenance.

One of the original founders of the museum apparently used to go on collecting tours of Europe, buying paintings from cash strapped aristocrats who had lost everything in the first world war - so you would think it would be easy to work out provenance.

But, no. The person in question was an art collector in his own right, and while he would sometimes use the museum's money to pay for items, sometimes he would use his own, and sometimes he would 'sell' a piece to the museum at below cost and claim it as a tax loss.

And the records were a complete mess.

It wasn't clear which had been bought on behalf of the museum, which were on loan, and which were donations - and of course the more saleable paintings' records were as confused as the less valuable.

In this case having an unclear provenance worked for the museum - they couldn't sell what wasn't theirs, and the didn't know what wasn't theirs.

And I suspect that this is the case with a lot of museums who developed their collections in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century - the documentation is quite unclear.

Not for everything of course, for example the Elgin Marbles have a clear provenance and the case really depends on the legality or otherwise of Elgin's actions and whether his firman from the Ottoman governor really gave him permission.

But then we have cases like the Nizam of Hyderabad's mummy, which I blogged about back in 2015, where provenance is unclear, we know he bought it, but not if it was illegally acquired. Likewise in Amelia Edwards' account of her trip up the Nile in the 1870's, she recounts the story of the tourists who bought a mummy at vast expense, and after a week or so found that they could not stand the sweet odour emanating from it, and (literally) jettisoned their losses by throwing it in the Nile.

And this all makes the problem of artefacts acquired during the period of European colonialism.

Were the items acquired legally, were they acquired under duress or what.

And of course rules change. Egypt, for example started to license archaeological digs quite early and had clear rules about both documentation and ownership - basically that the more significant items were automatically property of the Egyptian department of Antiquities, which is why so much of the material is in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, but as we know, there are significant collections elsewhere, and as the Nizam of Hyderabad case shows us, the system was not perfect.

Other countries, especially those under colonial rule, were not so strict.

And for this reason, probably one thing that should be done is to digitise the museum records and correspondence, as well as that of individual archaeologists and collectors, to both settle the question of provenance, but also to provide an unrivalled insight into the history of archaeology, and it's relationship to the antiquities trade in the nineteenth century ...