University of Cambridge Museums

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Material Cultures Symposium

How do we transform thousand years old objects into active ambassadors of Antiquity for our public within our Museums? How can our public be intrigued so that their visit to an Antiquities Gallery or a Museum of the Ancient World could equal an unforgettable learning experience?

These were only two of the many new questions that were added to the agenda of the recent Symposium titled ‘Material Cultures in Public Engagement: European perspectives on public engagement with collections of the Ancient World’ as a result of the lively debates and discussion that the Symposium generated.

The Symposium hosted by the Antiquities Department of the Fitzwilliam Museum on 16-17 March 2015 was an energetic collaboration between three University of Cambridge Museums (Fitzwilliam Museum, Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA) and the Museum of Classical Archaeology) as well as the Topoi Excellence Cluster in Berlin.

The two days of the Symposium were filled with presentations and lively discussions by delegates from many national and European Institutions. Among them, the three ‘home’ Museums (MAA, Fitzwilliam and Museum of Classical Archaeology) gave interesting presentations on their recent public engagement activities with collections of the Ancient World. Delegates from the two Berlin State Museums (Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte Berlin and the Antikensammlung) focused on the current redevelopment of the ‘Berlin Museum Insel’ (‘Museum Island area’), and how it is reshaping the relationship of Berlin audiences with the city’s recent historic past. Finally delegates from two Greek institutions (Acropolis Museum and National Archaeological Museum of Athens) gave insightful presentations on how the extensive program of public events in the Acropolis Museum has ‘rekindled’ local and international interest in the history of the Acropolis and its significant monuments; while the National Archaeological Museum of Athens is presenting an impressive outreach and educational programme despite the country’s current financial problems.

What became apparent during the two days of the Symposium was that despite the generally accepted common goals and targets of all the participating institutions when it comes to public engagement with the Ancient World, the ways in which we deliver our programmes and approach our audiences are very different. This diversity became apparent in discussions even within institutions of the same country, such as between the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, that in principle have set many common objectives for engaging their visitors with the Ancient World.  We believe that this only testifies to the importance of hosting more Symposia and meetings under this theme!

The Symposium concluded with guided visits to the galleries of the three Cambridge Museums and the promise that delegates will continue to work closely exchanging ideas and experiences related with public engagement programmes and Antiquities. A follow-up of the Cambridge Symposium, a workshop dedicated to public engagement will take place in the Berliner Antike-Kolleg /Topoi Excellence Cluster, in Berlin in September, where delegates from Cambridge have been invited to participate. The results of the Symposium will soon be published into an edited volume.

Two reviews of the Symposium have appeared in the press, one in the leading Greek newspaper ‘Kathemerini’ and one in the newsletter of the Topoi Excellence Cluster in Berlin both hailing it as a successful international collaboration.

We would like to thank everyone who participated and contributed to making the Symposium a success!

Dr Anastasia Christophilopoulou, Assistant Curator, Department of Antiquities, Fitzwilliam Museum
Dr Lucilla Burn, Assistant Director and Keeper of Antiquities, Fitzwilliam Museum

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