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?