Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The mystery of the empty box...

A little while ago, Gemma blogged about the magic of old labels on objects. This got me thinking about another of the pleasures (and problems!) of the packing project we’re currently working on: empty boxes.

Empty boxes from the Glassby collection

It might be a bit of a truism that curators need to be good detectives, but there are few better examples than the empty box.

For instance, at the moment staff here are working in the Archaeology Store packing up the Glassby collection* of ancient Egyptian and Near Eastern amulets, scarabs, ushabtis (funerary figurines that were placed in tombs) and other assorted treasures.
In amongst these wonderful objects are a number of empty boxes labelled with exotic descriptions like ‘Amulet of Ptah Soker, an Egyptian God’ and ‘Figure of a Hippopotamus’.
There’s an inevitable sinking feeling that comes with finding these, as the realisation dawns that the hard work of tracking down the missing objects is about to begin. Thankfully, the answer usually turns out to be quite simple – here, some have been given new boxes while others were removed years ago so they could be put on display.
Modern collections management systems, with their ability to track the locations of objects, help no end, but ultimately they rely on the data we put in them. A curator still needs good instincts, patience and the ability to follow clues to solve the mystery of the empty box.

Egyptian amulet found by Flinders Petrie
The box above stands out in particular for me because of its reference to the famous archaeologist Flinders Petrie and it’s inevitable that the labels on some empty boxes are more intriguing (at first glance at least) than others. The best case I’ve heard was an ex-colleague who found a box that claimed to contain ‘glass negatives showing the Holy Grail’. Now, it might only have been photographs of the Holy Grail, but that would have been exciting enough, right? If only the box hadn’t been empty.
*William J.J. Glassby came to Bedford in 1912 to take up the position of land agent for the Polhill family at Howbury Hall in Renhold. Well known as a ‘seeker of curios’, he kept his collection at the Costin Street Mission Hall, where it was ‘always a source of great interest to visitors’.

Tom Perrett @tjperrett

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