By Matthew Roberts
Living in Durham, you might at some point begin to believe you have a handle on the ancient wonders that now act as the backdrop to your student life. You’ve admired the city streets, been welcomed as a scholar in the cathedral, and drank a beer in the basement bar of the castle. You have been physically immersed in history, you know what to expect at this point. Then someone hands you a beautiful 3000 year-old alabaster Kohl jar, that almost seems to glow with reflected light; an Eye of Horus protective amulet, gazing up from the palm of your hand; a small Shabti burial figurine, perhaps one of the most iconic artifacts of any Ancient Egyptian historical display. What would normally be a set of objects you could only encounter through display case glass is, instead, given to you to physically hold and admire. Afterwards, you realize that your medieval University home will never cease to find new ways to provide amazing, humbling and surreal experiences.
This year the Ustinov Intercultural Forum is organizing a series of historical workshops hosted by the Oriental Museum. Attendees are given an opportunity to focus on a specific area of the museum’s vast collection. The workshops are broken up into multiple segments: the first portion is a 45-minute gallery tour, with a format recognizable to visitors of any major museum. Specific pieces from the museum’s collection are selected and described in detail by a member of staff, to provide greater context and a richer background history to the workshop visitors. This is followed by a short refreshment break, allowing attendees to discuss what they’ve seen, as well as providing some time to browse the gallery on their own. Finally, those who registered for the workshop proceed to a museum classroom for the object handling session. Space is limited for this second portion, and the number of spots available fills up quickly.
The excellent Charlotte Spink provided guidance for this initiatory session and described some of the more unique pieces within the Museum’s Ancient Egypt collection. I would encourage anyone who missed this first workshop to find some time to visit the museum on your own, and spend some time exploring both of the Egyptian galleries (your Student ID will allow you free entry). The members of staff are welcoming and will answer any questions visitors have about the displays.
Perhaps just as significant to the topic discussion were the selection of students who chose to attend. A wide range of disciplines and backgrounds were represented, which was reflected in many of the small side conversations which took place. Those familiar with Egypt (either through academic discipline or their own personal experience) helped provide greater context to the presentation, finding a receptive audience with which to share and discuss. At least one small side-bar of Anthropology students lingered in the dimly-lit glow of the object displays, considering structural design based on societal needs by comparing and contrasting to similar items found in Ancient China, Greece and Rome. Nevertheless, even those who came due to curiosity rather than academic focus found opportunities to engage in the conversation, by simply admiring the craftsmanship of the objects with their fellow attendees. At the end of the night attendees left with memories of a unique experience, many eager to find other ways to further engage with the museum’s collection.
For those who were unable to attend this first session, there will be several more opportunities in the forthcoming months to engage in similar workshops through the Ustinov Intercultural Forum. The currently planned areas of focus will include: China, the Himalayas, and Central Asia; Japan and Korea; and South Asia and South East Asia. Watch the Ustinov Global Citizenship Programme’s Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/ustinovgcp/ for more details as the events draw near.