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The extraordinary tales behind University of Sydney antiquities


16 May 2012

(L-R) An ivory furniture inlay, a pair of mummified baby legs and the mummy coffin of Padiashaikhet are some of the 50 objects appearing in the new exhibition.
(L-R) An ivory furniture inlay, a pair of mummified baby legs and the mummy coffin of Padiashaikhet are some of the 50 objects appearing in the new exhibition.

Behind every museum artefact lies a story and a new exhibition at the University of Sydney tells some of the most riveting tales behind its vast antiquities collection, the largest in the southern hemisphere.

50 Objects 50 Stories: Extraordinary Curiosities from the Nicholson Museum opens tomorrow and displays an array of objects from the collection, accompanied by compelling and often bizarre stories. It is accompanied by the bi-weekly Extraordinary Curiosities TV series on ABC News 24, commencing when the exhibition opens on 17 May.

For instance, in the 1950s Agatha Christie accompanied her archaeologist husband to the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud, where he extracted a 9th-7th century BC ivory furniture inlay now residing at the museum. She lovingly cleaned her husband's find with the help of a very fine knitting needle and her face cream!

War, political history and clever forgeries also feature among the stories and artefacts in 50 Objects 50 Stories.

The exhibition starts with Sir Charles Nicholson, an illegitimate farm labourer's grandson turned gentleman. Nicholson felt his appointment as the University's first Chancellor was a chance to fulfil his dream to build a collection of antiquities. He returned from his first expedition to Egypt in 1857, armed with more than 400 artefacts. Those featured in 50 Objects 50 Stories include gruesome mummified remains, an exquisite early example of glass artisanship, and a mismatched mummy and coffin.

(L-R) The Head of Horemheb, a Lucanian Nestoris and a warrior head are some of the 50 objects appearing in the new exhibition.
(L-R) The Head of Horemheb, a Lucanian Nestoris and a warrior head are some of the 50 objects appearing in the new exhibition.

Ordered by acquisition date, each object is displayed in the exhibition alongside its story, told compellingly by Nicholson Museum senior curator Michael Turner.

"An object in a museum is the sum of its parts, the quality and diversity of which determine its appeal," he says. "Beyond archaeological significance and aesthetic appeal are the associated stories that add context and colour.

"A story in 50 Objects 50 People might trace the object's origins, discuss the period of history it stems from, explain how it came to the Nicholson and allude to its broader cultural influence," he says.

Some stories are war time tales. Attic white lekythoi (Greek pottery for storing oil) were flown out of Paris for the collection in June 1940, missing the German invasion of France by just 36 hours. Fragmented Indus Valley figurines dating back to 2500BC, found their way to Australia from a newly created Pakistan, wending their way through the throes of a violent partition.

The TV series Extraordinary Curiosities, produced by ABC arts reporter Anne Maria Nicholson for ABC News 24, is a close-up of the exhibition. The show comprises 50 three-minute episodes, with each dedicated to an artefact from the exhibition. The first episode airs at 7.57pm on Thursday, 17 May. Thereafter, two new episodes will run each week:

  • 12.57pm, Monday;
  • 7.57pm, Tuesday (repeat of Monday's show);
  • Wednesday, 12.57pm; and
  • Thursday, 7.57pm (repeat of Wednesday's show). All times are AEST.

Exhibition details

What: 50 Objects 50 Stories: Extraordinary Curiosities from the Nicholson Museum

When: From Thursday 17 May for 12 months

Opening hours: 10am to 4.30pm, Monday to Friday

Midday to 4pm on the first Saturday of each month

Closed public holidays

Where: Nicholson Museum, southern entrance to the Quadrangle, Camperdown Campus. See map and directions 

Cost: Free

Contact: Nicholson Museum on 9351 2812


Visit the Sydney University Museums website.


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Media enquiries: Jocelyn Prasad, 02 9114 1382, jocelyn.prasad@sydney.edu.au

Katie Szittner, 02 9351 2261, 0478 316 809, katie.szittner@sydney.edu.au