Monthly Archives: May 2011

An update from Jane

Life here has been pretty routine recently, catching up on environmental records and reports, only for the next bank holiday to get in the way again. Likewise with filling humidifiers – we put these in some areas as a back-up, for example in the Temporary Galleries when we have an exhibition with tight environmental specifications, such as Secret Egypt. If all goes to plan they shouldn’t be necessary, but in order for them to work as a back-up should there be an issue, they have to be set at a level where they work some of the time. Even more unfortunately, we have a very high silica level in the water around here which means if we want the wicks to be effective, water needs to be filtered; and we don’t use enough to justify a proper system. As a child I loved pouring water – it’s kind of losing its appeal…. (we do have filters added to the main Air Handling Unit feeds).

We’ve had a little more work on the roof, again in fine weather, so the three rolls of polythene we stocked up on in case we needed a belt and braces measure now has to be found a home. We get through a certain amount for wrapping works of art on he move, so it won’t go to waste. 

I’ve been costing up for a large (but only potential) order for photography. I’m not expert – I could be some kind of default get very good results using film and the more than basic set-up I had at the time, but this doesn’t seem to translate to digital. However, I only do the equivalent of photocopies for documents which won’t take that treatment, so they don’t need to be perfect. This order is all form one large collection, mostly from the letters. The range of condition is quite amazing – from practically pristine to so friable they have to be turned with carrier sheets. Someone earlier last century went through them, making folds with a précis on the front. One was evidently so vestigial the original was destroyed at that point. A number of years ago I started repacking the letters series with a volunteer. It’s interesting to come back to it as a user and assess how the strategy works in practice. The difficulty was that individual packing takes more space, and the boxing didn’t allow for this.

It sounds like the leaving do for several long-standing colleagues has begun in the room next door, so I’d better go and investigate the cakes….



Secret Egypt – objects in detail

Shabti box © Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery

As Secret Egypt nears the end of its time at the Herbert, I am taking the opportunity to look at some of its fascinating objects in more detail. If you would like to find out more about some of the objects come along to our final Revealing Objects gallery talk. I’m giving the last one about our mummy, Perenbast, on Wednesday 1st June 1-1.30pm.

Shabti box

Ancient Egyptian history spans thousands of years, from early settlers in the Nile valley over 7000 years ago to the last use of hieroglyphic writing around AD 400. While some aspects of the culture, religion, writing and daily life remained the same for hundreds of years there were still many changes. When designing an exhibition about ancient Egypt it is very difficult to convey this huge period of time and all the changes within it. Sometimes we generalise and use the most common examples of practice.

Shabtis, which would have been stored in this box, are a good example of this. Shabtis feature in almost all exhibitions about ancient Egypt. They were placed in tombs and would magically come to life to do the tomb owner’s bidding in the afterlife. However shabtis were not placed in all tombs, they were in use from about 1900 to 300 BC – long after the pyramids of Giza were built.

Over time the number of shabtis included in tombs increased, so much so boxes were made to contain them. This box dates to about 1300 to 1185 BC and belonged to a scribe called Ptah-hetep. Here you can see him worshipping the god Horus and goddess Maat. Ptah-hetep is wearing a very fine pleated linen garment with a decorative collar and bracelet.


Object of the Month – May 2011

Fairy PenguinFairy Penguin

Eudyptula minor

My two year old daughter is obsessed with penguins and asked me if I had one in the Herbert’s natural history collections. I had a look and found we have a Fairy Penguin specimen.

The fairy penguin is native to Australia and New Zealand. They are also known as little blue penguins due to the colour of the feathers on their backs. This is smallest of all the penguin family with adults growing to between 20 and 30 centimetres tall.

Fairy penguins spend the day out at sea hunting for small fish and crustaceans. They hunt in groups, called ‘rafts’. Like most penguins they swallow their food whole. At night they return to the colony. They nest in burrows or rock crevices.  Fairy peguins mate for life and both parents sit on the eggs and nurture the young.

Their natural predators include fur seals, orcas and tiger sharks. The average life span is 6 ½ years though some individuals in captivity have reached the grand old age of 25!

Secret Lives

We have a new contributor to the blog! Please welcome Fraser, one of our gallery assistants.  

I have a secret life. I’m a professional gallery assistant and I’m a professional mascot. Being a mascot is like being a superhero: I cannot reveal my secret identity. True, my super power is unlikely to save the world, as it’s waving at children. My training for the job was simple…

Fraser dressed as a cinema

I cannot reveal my mascot identity, but here I am dressed as a cinema....

‘Don’t talk, and don’t take your head off.’ they say ‘Else the kids’ll freak.’

Awhile back, I had the chance to combine my gallery work and my mascoting.
‘Will you be my Mummy?’ my friend in marketing asked. ‘Well, yes,’ I say. Secret lives; secret Egypt. Who da Mummy?

Not me, as it happens. Maybe I’m overqualified. The chosen Mummy did a great job, but I’d have laid down more comedy curses.
‘I curse your hat! Oh no…I actually I quite like it. Better than what they’re wearing in the afterlife. I bless your hat.’
Pause. Comedy pause.
‘Your socks, though, NAH!’ 

Our real mummy is Perenbast the Chantress. We know her through her artefacts, but how well can we ever know her? How well can we ever know anyone? How well do we even know our colleagues? 

During launch day, I went for a sandwich with someone I’ve worked with for over a year. We get on well, but our conversation stutters. It just dive-bombs into silence.

‘Hey,’ she says ‘let’s talk about work!’ She’s joking, but it’s true. Outside the work bubble, we don’t say much. Having a communal pint after the launch, we joke about it. ‘We need to work on our friendship,’ she says. ‘I’ll text you,’ I say ‘…about work.’

Maybe it’s because we’re tired. Maybe it’s because I’m more reactive in conversations. I rarely drive them. I like to listen, just listen. If you really listen, you’ll see how often people cut across each other or finish each other’s sentences. Good listeners rarely interrupt. To be one, just don’t talk. Oh, and don’t take your head off. 

Fraser and Postman Pat

....and here I am with Postman Pat.

It’s easy to talk about work. Naturally, friendships blossom behind desks and in galleries, but when people move on, rapports can dwindle. I returned to TKMaxx, where I worked for two years. The connections had gone. I don’t know what to say. But you can hardly dive into deep conversation. I once joked about this while serving TKMaxx customers.

‘Would you like small talk,’ I said ‘or …a deep, psychologically demanding, conversation?’ They ponder. ‘We’ll take the deep conversation.’ ‘So,’ I said. ‘When was the last time you cried?’ They laugh. I continue. ‘And when was the last time you broke the law?’ Maybe not that deep, but the customers loved it.

Some customers want rapport, like people meeting mascots. Others customers want approachable reverence, like seeing Museum Assistants. I adjust myself to both. Rarely customers want deep conversations or colleagues. 

How well do my colleagues really know me? Even those I socialise with.

I think I’ll take five minutes to chat more, and maybe not about work.

Like I say, I have a secret life.

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A review of Secret Egypt

 Secret Egypt has been open to visitors for nearly three months now and it is a useful time to review what it has achieved. The headline news is the number of visitors who have come through the door of the exhibition. To date, over 25,000 visitors have enjoyed Secret Egypt making it the most successful exhibition ever put on by the Herbert. For certain, some of this success is due to the popularity of the subject of ancient Egypt but judging from the comments received from visitors, people have really enjoyed the exhibition itself. There have been a number of repeat visitors which is always a good sign as well as considerable use of the exhibition by schools and families who have experienced our excellent learning workshops.

What have people liked about Secret Egypt? A small sampling of the several thousand comment cards left by mainly young visitors to the exhibition provides some insight into what people have made of the exhibition. The interactive games appear to have been a particular success. One adult said:

‘It was a wonderful display. Thank you for adding activities for the children, it made the exhibit more exciting’.

The mummy was a particular hit and many seem to be excited by the fact that they were seeing a real ancient Egyptian: One comment said ‘I can’t believe I actually saw a real mummy’

For one young boy Secret Egypt appeared to confirm his future career path:

‘Thanks for the exhibition! It really gave me an insight into the life of Perenbast and the Ancient Egyptians from Finn (Future Egyptologist)’

Three speakers from Mummies, Myths and Magic - Joyce Tyldesley, Joyce Filer and Stephen Snape

The Secret Egypt events programme has been well attended with hundred enjoying talks by well-known Egyptologists such as Aidan Dodson and Joyce Tydlesley.  There are still plenty of excellent events left up until the end of the exhibition on June 5th so look out for details.

We are currently making preparations for Secret Egypt to travel on to its next venue in Torquay after it finishes here. The exhibition space is quite different at Torquay and there has been some detailed thought about how the exhibition will be laid out there. Secret Egypt will be on in Torquay until November 2011 and we hope it has the same sort of response to what it has received in Coventry.

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