The extraordinary tales behind University of Sydney antiquities
13 June 2012
Behind every museum artefact lies a story and an 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 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.
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.
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 2500 BC, 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 aired at 7.57pm on Thursday 17 May. Thereafter, two new episodes 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.
What: 50 Objects 50 Stories: Extraordinary Curiosities from the Nicholson Museum
When: Open now until May 2013
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
Contact: Nicholson Museum on 9351 2812
Visit the Sydney University Museums website.
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