Behind the Scenes

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Sardis Archival storage, with nearly 60 years of handwritten logs and reports

Nothing makes me nerd out harder than being in the storage spaces or archives of museums. I remember reading From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler about the two kids secretly living at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and being downright giddy at the idea of wandering through galleries when no one else is around. Even before reading this, the Sesame Street special “Don’t Eat the Pictures” was my favorite movie as a child. Again, the entire Sesame Street gang gets locked in the Met overnight and explores the galleries on their own.

It’s the same thing with museum storage…the idea of seeing things that others don’t normally get to see, looking at objects and documents that normally do not see the light of day. I suppose it’s the same rush I get from archaeological work…bringing something to light that’s been untouched for hundreds or thousands of years.

Today is the end of #MuseumWeek on Twitter and other social media platforms, and it’s my favorite. I love posting my own Sardis content (@Snarrkaeology), but I also love pouring over what other institutions post…ESPECIALLY the #secretsMW hashtag. The behind-the-scenes looks, most notably those posted by a number of Italian museums, were simply fascinating to me. And it reminds me how fortunate I’ve been in my own career and research.

As emotionally, physically, and intellectually exhausting as the dissertation process can be, some of my happiest moments from the last…however many years it took me to finish that thing…occurred during the process. My work required collections visits to institutions throughout the US and Europe, and at the end of the day…everyone was unbelievably welcoming and helpful, willing to drop what they were doing to get me what I needed. My best moments:

  1. Having a gallery closed off for me in the Vatican so that they could open the cases for my examination of the cremation urns there, joking with the three guards assigned to me, and drinking espressos with them right in the gallery.
  2. The Museo A. Salinas in Palermo letting me come in their building, during heavy construction, to examine object cards…while the entire staff was cramped into one room to do their own work.
  3. Coming to the Louvre on a Tuesday when they were closed to the public, having the cases opened for me, chatting with the head curator of Greek and Roman like he was a peer, and being left alone in storage for AN HOUR. I lost my mind.
  4. Days and days at the historic archives of the Florence archaeological superintendency hunched over hand-drawn plans and excavation reports from the 19th and 20th centuries, then spending break time with the staff drinking coffee and talking about our cats.
  5. Having the chance to examine urns at the Altes Museum in Berlin in storage, the galleries before opening, and in the brand new study center.
  6. Being locked in the Etruscan galleries of the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek all by myself to examine the urns there…and to spend a good amount of time wandering around.

The list could go on, but I’ve been lucky to fulfill all my nerdy dreams.

And I want to pay it forward.

Archaeological archives are fascinating. We have so many wonderful documents here at the Sardis Archives at the Harvard Art Museums. If you’re interested, need something for your research, or just want to see something new, please let me know. Our doors are open if you need to nerd out.

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