Displaying Nimrud at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

On this page, Dr Paul Collins, Assistant Keeper for the Ancient Near East, explores how Nimrud material has been displayed at Oxford University's Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology TT . He discusses past and current displays, and explores the particular challenges involved with museum displays in general but especially those from the ancient capital of Assyria.

The Drapers' Gallery: displaying Nimrud to the 20th-century university

The Ashmolean Museum received some 300 artefacts from excavations at Nimrud by the British School of Archaeology in Iraq TT  in the 1950s. These were acquired through a division of finds TT  between Iraq and sponsors of the excavations which was standard practice for the time. The collection includes cuneiform TT  tablets TT , seals TT , ivory TT  writing boards TT , statues, figurines TT , amulets TT , jewellery, weights and ceramic vessels. They joined several complete and fragmentary Assyrian relief panels TT  from Nimrud that were donated to or purchased by the museum in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As a university museum, the Ashmolean's collections have always played an important role in teaching, which has to some extent shaped the way in which its collections have been displayed. Here I discuss the Ashmolean as a case study of how a university museum has displayed its material from Nimrud.

Image 1: Leaflet describing the Drapers' Gallery in the Ashmolean Museum. Photo: © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford. View large image.

Image 1 shows details from a free leaflet guide to the Ashmolean's gallery for the ancient Near East, the so-called 'Drapers' Gallery'. Constructed in 1939, the gallery displayed the ancient Near East collections from the late 1950s until 2005 when the room was demolished as part of the redevelopment of the museum. Images 2 and 3 show how the Drapers' Gallery appeared in the 1990s. The way in which objects are exhibited was typical of many British museums, both national and provincial, from just after the Second World War.

Image 2: The Drapers' Gallery at the Ashmolean Museum. Photo: © University of Oxford. View large image.

The Drapers' Gallery was arranged by geographical region. It's a very simple and effective way of organising the space. The section devoted to antiquities from Iraq is clearly labelled in the top right hand corner, supported by maps showing the modern countries of the Near East. Iraq is displayed next to the section for Iran, so that a visitor knows where they are situated geographically (Image 2). Display cases along the wall are also colour-coded: for example, blue is used to distinguish ancient Mesopotamia from neighbouring regions. The cases contain material from a wide range of periods. In this dense approach to display, you could explore deep prehistory right through to the early centuries AD. In the centre are several table cases containing small objects grouped by type, for example, ivories, cylinder seals, and tablets (Image 3). This is a very traditional approach, allowing a visitor to appreciate form and variety as much as the relationship between different objects.

Image 3: The Drapers' Gallery at the Ashmolean Museum. Photo:© University of Oxford. View large image.

Most objects were provided with a label. Compared with modern approaches, many of these labels appear to be very dense with text. Yet, apart from printed guide books and leaflets, labels were the only source of information about the objects available for a casual visitor, so they were intended to be as comprehensive as space allowed. Much of this information was, of course, no different than what is considered important today: object provenance TT , materials and date.

One significant difference from modern labels is that many were produced by hand, either on a typewriter (Image 4) or using a professional label writer to hand-write the curator's information in ink or paint (Image 5). The Drapers' Gallery contained examples of different styles of labels, with no consistency in design. This was as a result of displays being rearranged over the years, with new objects and information added.

Image 4: Type-written label on Mesopotamian prehistory from the Drapers' Gallery. Photo: © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford. View large image.

Image 5: Hand-written labels for Nimrud ivories from the Drapers' Gallery. The label also includes a hand-annotated version of the 1950s site plan of Nimrud. Photo: © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford. View large image.

The long, hand written labels today look very quaint. It would be wrong however to laugh at these attempts to convey information. I've worked with gallery designers who mock such historic labels, reflecting an assumption that even today curators simply dump everything they know about an object onto them. But it is easy to forget that what we take for granted in a modern exhibition (accessible text, graphic panels with colour images and appealing fonts, let alone virtual, digital text and images) was simply not available.

Also, the last two decades has witnessed a revolution in museum practice, reflecting changing approaches to education as well as the role of museums as attractions for many different audiences. There is no doubt that curators in the past were thinking about their audiences, as they invested huge amount of time on developing text in both labels and books. But their audiences had different needs and expectations compared with audiences today.

Image 6: The Drapers' Gallery mid-way through demolition, showing the map of Iraq still visible on the gallery wall. Photo: © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford. View large image.

The Drapers' Gallery was de-installed (all the objects were packed and sent to off-site storage) when much of the Ashmolean was demolished and rebuilt between 2005 and 2009, funded largely by a major grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. Image 6 shows the demolition of the gallery, a poignant last view of an older way of displaying objects from Iraq. A new gallery for the ancient Near East was included in the master plan for the new building: not on the upper floor where the Drapers' Gallery had been, but on the ground floor, just inside the front door of the museum.

New displays for new audiences in a new millennium

Image 7: The new ancient Near East gallery at the Ashmolean Museum, c.2009, view 1. Photo: © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford. View large image.

The new gallery (Image 7) is a smaller space than the old Drapers' Gallery and, with nearly 30,000 objects in the Ashmolean's ancient Near East collections, the first task was to decide what should go on display and which stories they should tell. Gone were the days of trying to show as many objects as possible. Now the focus was to make them meaningful and connected through themes and narratives (displayed either singularly or in groups). Given the geographic range of the collection, from the Aegean PGP  to the Indus PGP , and the huge time span from 9000 BC to the end of the Achaemenid TT  Empire in 330 BC, we could realistically only tell a few of the many possible stories.

I can take no credit for the stories selected or the ways in which they are told through the gallery; this was the achievement of Dr Jack Green, now the Chief Curator at the Oriental Institute Museum in Chicago. Additionally, the gallery I inherited has been designed to tie in with stories told in the other spaces of the redeveloped museum. The Ashmolean is now underpinned by the concept of 'crossing cultures, crossing time', where visitors can travel geographically as they move between spaces. So it is possible to move from the ancient Near East gallery through one door and visit the displays of the Aegean world, while another doorway takes you to the Cypriot PGP  material and then on to Egypt PGP . The arrangement emphasises the connections as well as the differences between the regions and their various contemporary cultures.

Image 8: The new ancient Near Eastern gallery at the Ashmolean Museum, c.2009, view 2. Photo: © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford. View large image.

Within the gallery itself the challenge was to establish relationships between objects and construct narratives around them. In fact, when creating the gallery Jack Green faced many of the same issues that the British Museum TT  had to tackle in the nineteenth century, such as how to display objects from the same ancient site, but of greatly varying size and type. Until the First World War, the British Museum had displayed small, portable objects from Nimrud, in table cases on the ground floor, alongside the stone bas-reliefs TT . When eventually the small items were moved to the upper floor, this divorced their relationship with the reliefs: the enormously heavy pieces of stone couldn't leave their ground floor positions.

The Ashmolean's reliefs from Nimrud are now displayed together with examples from Nineveh PGP  on a single wall of the gallery (Image 7). In antiquity, however, many of the small objects from Nimrud would have been used in rooms surrounded by the reliefs. So the question of how to relate the reliefs to the smaller objects remains. The Nimrud ivories, once decorative elements of furniture, have to be displayed today in cases where the environmental conditions (humidity TT  and lighting) can be controlled to avoid damage to the material – as is the case with all organic objects. The result is a display case on a wall adjacent to the reliefs, but with labelling and text panels to help visitors make the connections between them (Image 10).

Image 9: Details of two case labels from the ancient Near East gallery. The top label was part of the 2009 installation, the lower label a revised version from 2013. The full version of the image shows the full label, which is placed along the bottom edge of the display case. Photo: © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

Labelling continues to be developed. Image 9 shows a label run TT  from one of the cases in the new ancient Near East gallery. Compared with older approaches to labels there is less detail – often a frustration for the specialist or visitors wanting more information. The label from 2009 (Image 9, top) is quite dense with text and refers to multiple objects in the case. For each object there is a brief description (sometimes only a few words), plus provenance TT , material, museum registration number TT  and often some details of how it entered the collection (excavation, gift or loan). There are no images, plans or maps, although some are shown on an accompanying text panel within the case.

In 2013, this label in the ancient Near East gallery was replaced with a new version (Image 9, bottom). This new approach is based on lessons learnt during refurbishment of the galleries for Ancient Egypt and Sudan in 2011. The labels contain much less text: for example, the details of the how the object came to the museum is no longer shown. The font is larger and thus more visually accessible, and images have been introduced to add some context and colour. These new labels have been very successful with the museum's visitors. As a result, this style is being rolled out across the galleries, starting with the ancient Near East. There is no doubt that ideas about labelling will continue to evolve and that the current labels will at some point, perhaps very soon, look quaint.

Image 10: Case of ivories, vessels and figurines from Nimrud in the new ancient Near East gallery, c.2009. Photo: © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford. View large image.

There are many other challenges with displaying objects from Nimrud. Image 10 shows a case in the Near East gallery containing small objects excavated at the site and a range of material is included. Of particular interest are the carved ivories TT  which, as mentioned above, originally formed parts of elaborate furniture. Many of these arrived in Assyria as booty and tribute TT  from states to the west. What is the most effective way of telling this story in the gallery? In the current display, it's not so easy to see that the ivories are carved in a number of styles: one that is local and purely Assyrian, and two other styles that derive from beyond Assyria's borders.

Image 11: Scheme for displaying Nimrud ivories geographically, which was intended to be backed by a map. Photo: © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford. View large image.

Jack Green's original scheme, which he shared with me, was to lay out these ivories on a map of the Near East, positioning them against the region where they were manufactured (Image 11). So, one style of ivories should be placed over Syria, while another, the so-called 'Phoenician' PGP  style, shown in relation to the southern Levant PGP . Contrasting with them are the ivories carved in Assyria, depicting related imagery to that of the stone reliefs on the adjacent wall. A great idea, but unfortunately the inclusion of a map was never realised. Shortages of both time and money forced it to be abandoned – but I hope not forever.

Image 12: Stone bas-relief TT  of an eagle-headed genie TT  in the Ashmolean Museum, panel 32 from room B in the Northwest Palace; 1982.224. Photo: © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford. View large image.

Image 13: The same stone eagle-headed genie TT  displayed in the Ashmolean's 'Human Image' gallery, 2013; 1982.224. Photo: © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford. View large image.

Image 12 shows one of our most spectacular objects from Nimrud in the Ashmolean, an enormous relief of an eagle-headed winged genie TT , or supernatural spirit, from the Northwest Palace. Austen Henry Layard gave it to Oxford University in 1852 in gratitude for his honorary degree, and it was deposited in the University galleries, the building which is now the Ashmolean Museum. It once dominated a wall in the Drapers' Gallery, but where should it be placed in the new museum? Jack Green wanted to place it at the entrance to the ancient Near East gallery, which seemed like a perfect solution: in antiquity the figure was intended to provide magical protection to a doorway. But alas the relief proved to be too heavy and the floor loading couldn't accommodate it. So for the present it sits, rather uncomfortably to my mind, in a gallery devoted to changing displays, initially one about the human image (Image 13) and more recently an exhibition of contemporary art. I hope a more fitting home will be found for it in due course but it eloquently captures the challenges of displaying objects and telling their stories, even in a purpose built 21st century museum.

This page is based on Dr Collins' talk given at the Nimrud: Mound to Museum study day in April 2013.

Content last modified: 31 Dec 2015.
nimrud at oracc dot org

Paul Collins

Paul Collins, 'Displaying Nimrud at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford', Nimrud: Materialities of Assyrian Knowledge Production, The Nimrud Project at Oracc.org, 2015 [http://oracc.museum.upenn.edu/nimrud/modernnimrud/atthemuseum/ashmoleanmuseumdisplays/]

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The Nimrud Project at Oracc.org / Content released under a CC BY-SA 3.0 licence, 2013-14
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