Archaeological Views: Mastering the Museum Makeover
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Revitalizing a museum collection, no matter what the size, has to be a labor of love. For eight years, I have been the director of the small but important Badè Museum of Biblical Archaeology at Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California. The core of the collection is archaeological artifacts from Tell en-Nasbeh, a site just northwest of Jerusalem, often identified as Biblical Mizpah. The site was excavated by Professor William F. Badè for Pacific School of Religion back in the 1920s and 1930s.
Before I began working at the museum, it hadn’t had a director in more than 20 years. A limited budget and the nearly continuous turnover of the museum’s small staff of curators, postdocs and graduate students meant that almost every aspect of the museum and its collection needed attention and more than a little tender loving care. Now, eight years on, I look back on what we’ve been able to accomplish with great pride.
Like many museums, the vast majority of our holdings are in storage, which means we are responsible for the stewardship and longevity of not only those objects on view in the gallery, but also those that are archived in the museum’s basement. One of our first long-term projects was to properly care for and conserve the objects in storage to ensure that the conditions in which they were stored were not furthering their deterioration. This meant that the old cardboard boxes and cigarette cases from the days of the British Mandate over Palestine had to be replaced with proper acid-free storage boxes lined with archival tissue. Similarly, old ticking paper that was used to pad the metal storage shelves was replaced with thin sheets of archival-quality foam that provide a buffer of protection for the artifacts.
Our permanent exhibits faced different challenges. Our gallery space was no longer completely under the museum’s control; it had been adapted by the seminary as a multifunction room for meetings, lectures and school events. This meant that the permanent exhibits set up in the early 1980s no longer told the originally intended story, since the exhibits in the center of the room had been removed. For the visitor, going through the exhibit was like trying to understand a 20-year-old novel with its middle pages torn out.
After working for several months to understand better our holdings and the challenges of our display space, I developed a master plan for implementing a new series of permanent exhibits. With this plan in place, we worked for five years to install new exhibits and revitalize old ones. We also developed two areas for temporary exhibits, including rotating shows related to aspects of everyday life in Biblical Israel, such as food and dining, family religion and the daily lives of women. We’ve also sponsored temporary exhibits on archaeological photography and current fieldwork projects. One of the most popular exhibits highlighted the remarkable career of William Badè, who not only directed the excavations at Nasbeh but also was a naturalist and leading figure in the Sierra Club.
Naturally, we have expanded the museum’s Web site (bade.psr.edu) as well as our presence on social media sites such as Facebook. We have also begun a long-term project to database and digitize the Nasbeh collection so that users will have access to information for each object and from the expedition’s original records. (Some of this information is already available through Open Context [opencontext.org].)
Research on the collection is a vital aspect of our mission. We have worked with senior scholars and graduate students to further research on Tell en-Nasbeh. I have focused my own research on this site. In the past several years, I have written on Phoenician wares that were imported to the site, coauthored a study on bronze bangles and even written an article positing that Nasbeh was indeed the Biblical city of Mizpah during the Iron Age and Babylonian periods, but that the city’s name and perhaps its population moved to the nearby site of Nebi Samuel in the Hellenistic period.a
BAR readers are welcome to visit us. We invite you to take in some of the exhibits firsthand—and judge the results of the museum’s transformation for yourself.