Ode to a Grecian box – some thoughts on the multiple histories of our Ancient Greek handling collection
By Celine West, on 11 April 2011
We have several boxes of stuff that we lend to schools. Not any old stuff of course, these are boxes containing some great objects from the collections, including one box that contains 15 objects from Ancient Greece that are part of our Archaeology Collections. There are metal animals and figurative pieces including a ceramic woman; there are decorated potsherds – broken pieces of pottery – as well as a couple of whole jugs.
These objects are roughly two and a half thousand years old and were used in a variety of domestic circumstances in different parts of the Grecian world, by people who we can imagine had not the slightest inkling of where that old jug that Daddy broke when he’d been at the retsina would end up.
The objects have this history, the history of their creation and use in their original context, and they have the history of their discovery and excavation, followed by their journey into our collection. They were brought together as a teaching collection about ten years ago, with the purpose of using them to help Primary School teachers when their class is learning the History topic What was life like in Ancient Greece?
These objects have since developed a whole other history, that of visiting classrooms around London and being in the hands of 20th and 21st century 9 year-old children. The objects have been taken to schools from Green Lanes in Haringey to leafy Richmond. They have been gasped at, cradled with the greatest care by little hands, had their pictures taken and their portraits drawn in pencil.
They have also been broken. Not all of them I hasten to add, but more than once has something been returned to us not in the state it went out in. Even with the best intentions and strict observance of the rules of good object handling, accidents happen. It’s a risk you run when you send objects out to meet so many people.
We are just now planning a repacking of our Ancient Greece box and making some changes to some of the contents, but we continue to be prepared to take the risk of damage because of the irreplaceable special experience we can give people when they hold in their hand a piece of a different world.