Projects, events and news from the University of Cambridge Museums
In June this year I was given a key to the storeroom of the Museum of Classical Archaeology. There is nothing quite like rooting around in hidden spaces for forgotten objects, and almost immediately I came across something that grabbed my attention. On a shelf, looking dusty and neglected was an old cowhide suitcase, brown in colour, with a broken handle and top slightly ajar. The temptation to have a closer look was irresistible. Taking it off the shelf, I opened the suitcase to find dozens of old chemist developing envelopes tightly packed together. The envelopes contained black and white photographs measuring 80mm by 60mms in size. Landscapes, monuments, ruins, people and archaeological sites were clearly the main interest of the photographer. The only immediate clue was written in red chalk on the top of the suitcase; ‘BEAN’. I am afraid to say that the only Bean I knew at the time came in the form of Rowan Atkinson on the BBC in the 90s, and his suitcase was black, not brown. This was probably not the same Bean.
In the following weeks I asked as many long serving members of the Classics Faculty as I could pin down and a George Bean’s name was mentioned, along with his travels in Turkey. Born in 1903, George studied Classics at Pembroke College and then went on to teach Greek at St. Pauls between 1926 and 1946. His work for the British Council during the War took him to Turkey in 1946 and he continued to work at the University of Istanbul until his retirement in 1971. His interests focused on epigraphic and topographical surveys and he produced a series of guidebooks on Turkey. George died in 1977 after falling ill in Turkey.
All is information did not really explain how and when the suitcase came to be in our collection. By chance a retired academic found the contact details for George’s widow, who had since emigrated to Australia (very inconvenient, I think you’d agree). I sent an email out into the ether, with little optimism of receiving a reply. A week or so later I received an email from Jane Bean, alive and well and confirming that she donated the suitcase to the Classics Faculty some time ago. Jane sent over photographs of George and recounts of their travels across Turkey. One story is accompanied by a photograph of an overburdened donkey, carrying an injured 6ft 8inch George, and a second describes the unexpected use of a watermelon for taking a recording of a stone’s surface.
Crucially, Jane agreed to assign copyright of the photographs over to us, giving us much more freedom to use them. The digitalising of the photographs has begun and many have the sites and place names written carefully in pencil on the back, allowing us to trace George’s footsteps. Our recent estimates suggest that the suitcase contains over 3, 000 photographs and their negatives. These have already been used by epigraphy researchers in the Classics Faculty and by the Skilliter Centre at Newnham College.
Coming across the Bean suitcase and learning about the person behind the lens has without doubt been the highlight of my time at the Museum of Classical Archaeology, and has only served to ignite my love for rooting around in dusty corners of museum storerooms.
The suitcase, several enlarged photographs, a notebook and stories written by Jane Bean are on display in the Museum of Classical Archaeology until 19 December as part of the ‘Secret Histories’ exhibition.
Kate Beats, Curator, Museum of Classical Archaeology