Lies My Docent Told Me: Part 3

Last time we talked a bit about museum labels and digital collections. Tuning in to the details of a museum’s digital collections can really help you with your research. This record for a body chain from the Hoxne Hoard in England is an example of the best of the new British Museum artifact records. The record has good quality digital photographs, actual research data with references, and a history of the piece at the museum, including when it was purchased and when and where it has been exhibited. Unfortunately there are still many artifacts that have not been photographed, or that are represented by “old style” artifact entries. This entry is fairly typical of one of the artifacts  that does not have a picture available. And this entry is typical of one of the older records. There is no photo, only an “artists rendition” and the amount of information about the artifact is minimal. This is also an “old style” record for a Roman coin that contains really minimal information about the artifact.

It is important to be aware of what the “new” verses “old” entries in a museum data base look like. The new ones may have mistakes, but they are much more likely to be more accurate and have good photographs and references associated with them.

And lest you think that I am picking on English Museums, let me tell you about my adventures in Boston. I was in Boston on business and I had a few minutes to waste before I had to be to a meeting. I noticed that a nearby office building had small displays from the Harvard Museum collection, so of course, I went to take a look at them. The displays were in nicely lit Lucite cases on the landings of the building. There were multiple cases with collections of ivory pieces from Rome – hair pins, writing stylus’s, and small carvings. I was thoroughly enjoying looking at the well lit pieces until I noticed a carefully labeled piece – “ivory hairpin”. And there before me sat a perfectly lovely top whorl ivory spindle. It was almost completely intact, with only a tiny piece broken off of the very bottom of the shaft of the spindle. And it was labeled as an ivory hairpin. So I went to the lobby and asked who I could contact about the display of Harvard artifacts. They easily gave me a name and phone number. A couple of days later I started trying to actually track down a real person to talk to. To cut a long story short, I probably made at least 20 calls over the following month and a half, and left a couple of dozen voicemails. I called the number that I had been given, and I went online and called other numbers. I never received a single call back, and I finally gave up. I decided that if Harvard wanted to look stupid, I guess they were allowed to. And believe it or not, I found a picture on the Harvard Art Museums website – of a top whorl ivory spindle, the very one that I had seen. And it is listed as a top whorl spindle.

top whorl roman spindle

Next Time: Where Do We Go From Here?

Lies My Docent Told Me: Part 2

Last time I mentioned a “docent fumble” and then promised some insights into looking at museum exhibits.

While I am picking on the Victoria and Albert Museum, let me bring up an issue that all museums deal with. Your labels and information about artifacts are only as good as the people who make those labels. At one visit to the V&A I was scrounging through the old Bronze gallery (the gallery has since been redone). The labels in the gallery had been typed on a typewriter, heaven only knows in what year. (This is a giant “red flag”.) The label on one of the large bronze jugs stated. “There are letters on the jug, but we don’t know what they mean”. The letters? “A M G P”. Probably one of the most common magical incantations of Medieval times – Ave Maria, Gracia Plena (Hail Mary Full of Grace). And to make it worse, some of the other jugs correctly identified what “AMGP” stood for. Consistency folks, consistency. Here is one of my old pictures from the Bronze Gallery – note the wrinkly old typed card.

V&A Jug

If I go to a digital online museum collection, almost all of them now have a “let us know that there is a problem with this record” link. Several years ago I started noticing some very serious clerical mistakes at the British Museum website. What I mean by “clerical” is that there might be six pictures associated with a specific artifact, and five are correct, but picture number six is a picture of a different artifact. Sometimes it is super obvious, the item in the picture has a different number on it than the artifact number in the record, or the artifact record is for a piece of pottery and one picture is a piece of jewelry. But sometimes both of the artifacts are of the same type. I remember discovering several clerical mistakes and trying to figure out how to contact someone. Sometimes I found some sort of contact person and sent them an email, and sometimes I finally gave up in frustration. I never received a single reply to any of my emails, not even an auto-responder message.

It really bugged me to see mistakes, so I kept sending messages. My one and only reply came from the Metropolitan Museum Of Art. I was looking at Middle Eastern beads online and I discovered a record for a “necklace”. One look told me that it was a Subha – a prayer bead strand. I found a random contact name and wrote a polite note about the piece. And about a week later I received a very nice email back, thanking me for pointing out the information and assuring me that I was correct, and that the museum was in the process of updating a bunch of records and that this one would be updated to reflect the additional information. It felt so good to know that I had actually reached a person and that the record would be updated!

It was not long afterwards that I started noticing what I think of as “Ooops” buttons, on a lot of museum sites. Links that let you report mistakes to museum staff. I am sure that I was not the only one out there to notice mistakes. I like to think of these buttons as “crowd sourcing corrections”. The more eyes that see a piece the more likely mistakes, or additional information is likely to be discovered.

Next time: Tuning in to Your Museum’s Listings

Lies My Docent Told Me

I have to admit it, I snatched the name for this blog from a book that helped my daughter get through high school history – Lies My Teacher Told Me. The original book was about the most common incorrect information that is found in history text books. And it was important enough to earn a Wikipedia entry and is well worth the read.

My point is really not that far from the original book. Some of the information that I have heard or seen in museums has been really awesome, and some of it has been patently wrong. Do not hesitate to question the accuracy of information that you see in museums.

My first really glaring experience occurred in the Victoria and Albert Museum, probably about 15 years ago. I was in the Medieval gallery, a general collection of Medieval artifacts ranging from monstrances, to mirror cases, and enameled spoons to reliquaries. I was examining the designs on a reliquary when I heard an authoritative woman’s voice behind me. She was obviously giving a tour of some sort, so of course, I listened, and glanced over my shoulder. The speaker was a distinguished looking matron. Her guests were a young couple, probably in their early 30’s, and obviously upper crust – my instant thought was “donors”. And their eyes were wide with delight at all the marvelous things that they were seeing. I love enthusiasm for historical things, so I continued to listen. And then the words came, “They made these bowls out of bronze because gold would melt if they tried to enamel it”. I never heard another word. My brain was racing. This information was totally wrong. Should I speak up? No. I decided that these folks were probably not even going to remember that casual comment, and if I spoke up I would just be an “obnoxious Yank” and even more important I might affect the long term donor status of the young couple. Donors are the life blood of most museums. It just wouldn’t accomplish anything positive.

So, one of the basic rules that we always have to remember is that science – chemistry, physics, metallurgy, and all the other branches of science, operated according to the same rules in ancient times as they do now. What I knew was that most enamel, especially the often heavily leaded enamels that were used before the 1990’s, melt at between 1100 and 1400 degrees Fahrenheit. Bronze, which is what the bowls were made of, melts at about 1980 degrees Fahrenheit, and Gold, depending on the alloy, melts at about 1948 degrees. Hence, the docent’s statement was really, really, wrong. The bowls were made of bronze to save money. After they were made they could easily be gilded, to make them look as if they were made of gold, without having to pay for the additional cost of solid gold. Sigh. And just for fun, here is one of the reliquaries from the V&A.

VandA Reliquary


What other sorts of things should we be watching for when we go to museums? Generalizations are always a “red flag”. Statements like “The Romans always…” There are very few absolutes when it comes to people.

Next time: Other Hints to Help us Navigate Museum Exhibits.