Ancient Lives/Future Skills: Discovering Graeco-Roman Egypt at the Manchester Museum

The team of Kim and Katharina working on Artemidora's dossier

The team of Kim and Katharina working on Artemidora’s dossier

Yesterday I led a school day on Graeco-Roman Egypt with a group of colleagues, graduate students and staff of the Manchester Museum. Using artefacts and papyri from the Manchester Museum and the John Rylands Library collections, we asked sixth form students of Runshaw College (Manchester) and Holy Cross College (Bury) to create short I-pad video-biographies of fictitious characters supposed to have lived in Egypt under the Roman rule. The results were impressive in terms of creativity and competence. They made me think a lot about how dramatically different the learning environment has become, and how inadequate some of our teaching still is.

Based on last year experience with schools for the exhibition Faces&Voices, the Graeco-Roman Egypt day at the museum has confirmed some trends:

Pupils do like ancient history and museums. The school day was attended by about 30 enthusiastic and engaged students. In their feedback forms pupils said that they wanted more time to be spent in the galleries where they were asked to find one object to add to their biography dossier. They also liked the object-based approach to ancient history as a more effective way to study history.

Students' feedback with appreciation for Chris, the graduate student team leader

Students’ feedback with appreciation for Chris, the graduate student team leader

Pupils like to be taught by people closer to their age. The pupils were divided into five groups led by a graduate student of our division (Classics & Ancient History, and Religion & Theology), and they enjoyed the experience. I noticed that they chatted a lot with their University peers, but were much less talkative when I interacted with them. Graduate students should be given more seminar teaching by Universities in close collaboration and under the supervision of senior course leaders. This will increase the quality of our courses and the student experience as both undergraduates and graduates.

Pupils like objects better than texts. Being a visual generation this is not surprising and it is positive because material culture should be much more integrated into ancient history teaching at all levels. It is nonetheless a point on which educators must find some sort of counter-balance. The ability of critical textual analysis is still a crucial skill. The syntax and grammar of social media communication and the overwhelming quality and quantity of digital and non-digital images that surround us are undermining students’ ability to approach texts critically and to write. (Answers to this? I don’t see many at the moment. May group reading be a strategy?)

Pupils are creative. This actually enhances our experience as teachers and scholars. Our work, especially as scholars, tends to be restricted by academic conventions that do not encourage creativity. I was actually inspired, entertained and intellectually stimulated in ways I am not so often, for instance, while listening at conference papers. Creative intelligence tends to be forgotten and less valued than other intellectual qualities in the education process.

This model of seminar is definitely successful and rewarding for all the people involved, and I am now trying to find ways of integrating aspects of it into my university courses. In the light of this on-going experience, I believe that having closer relationships with college students and teachers is essential for lecturers.

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Object biography #5: A double-sided painted mummy portrait (Acc. No. 5381)

I recommend the reading of this post, on a very special mummy portrait, from the blog of my colleague Campbell Price, curator of the Egyptian collection at the Manchester Museum!

Object biography #5: A double-sided painted mummy portrait (Acc. No. 5381).

In Rome

I am in Rome for research and I’ve just gone to the Centrale Montemartini, a very inspiring visit. Looking for a provisional space for Roman statues and artefacts when building the new branches of the Musei Capitolini, the Soprintendenza Archeologica di Roma chose an early 20th century industrial building on the via Ostiense. The Centrale Montemartini was a thermoelectric station opened in 1912, later transformed and slowly dismissed. In the 80ies instead of demolition, the Centrale was restored to become a museum of electricity. The place looked ideal for a temporary exhibit called ‘The Gods and the Machines’ for the large spaces available. It seemed also intriguing to place Roman antiquities into a building that had been planned and inaugurated in the same decades when most of the archaeological pieces on display had been discovered. The exhibit was so successful that it became permanent and has been recently increased by more materials and new rooms. The Centrale Montemartini is now fully integrated into the Musei Capitolini system.

Among the masterpieces on show I was obviously attracted by Egyptian pieces and themes. This head of a Ptolemaic queen, maybe Cleopatra, was found in 1886 in via Labicana, in the third regio called Isis and Serapis due to the presence of a temple devoted to the Egyptian gods.

In the light of the Roman trip, I am now dreaming of an exhibit of the Rylands papyri and the Manchester Museum Egyptian antiquities in one of the Rylands or Haworth’s dismissed cotton mills or warehouse…will we find one?