Cataloguing the 1936 Exhibition Collection
The year is 1936, and the British School at Athens is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary. What better way to celebrate than an exhibition in London, displaying photographs, artwork, and physical items commemorating the activities undertaken at the School in its first half-century of existence?
The year is 2023, and over the years the various parts of this exhibition have been returned to their original owners and some later re-donated to the BSA, or cut up and used for later exhibitions and publications, or lost somewhere along the decades that have passed. A bright-eyed intern (me) is handed a deteriorating copy of the original exhibition catalogue and tasked with reassembling as much of the exhibition as possible and creating an archive finding-aid, aka catalogue.
Near the end of this project is where you now find me…
With the catalogue as my guide and having been pointed towards a set of five drawers that contained much of the remaining material from the east and south rooms (the material from the north room, loaned from Sir Arthur Evans, is not in our possession; the west room is discussed later), I started familiarizing myself with the items that we know formed part of the exhibition, working out what we had, what was missing, what might be found, and how best to organize it based on current archival best practice using the rules of ISAD-G (International Standards for Archival Description-General).
The most important task was coming up with a numbering system to impose on the new catalogue. While the displays were already numbered for the exhibition itself, modern standards of archiving do not allow for the gaps left by the missing items, either those lost or the physical items that were never owned by the BSA. In order to maintain the original order as far as possible, I decided that the Exhibition Catalogue should be used as a guide, with each room forming a series, which were then divided into sub-series according to headings within the original catalogue. This system meant that, if a lost item is found, it will be given a number placing it with items from the same section of the exhibition; therefore, the catalogue can be expanded in the future if any more material comes to light.
Before assigning these new numbers and creating the final catalogue, however, I attempted to locate what missing pieces I could in order to keep the original order of exhibits as much as possible. Some were easy enough to find using the catalogue’s description, for example the item belonging in a large empty space labelled 12b was, “12: (b) a seated man in Minoan dress and bracelets raises a drapery with one hand; his nails are stained red.” The item matching this description had been catalogued incorrectly as part of the Mycenae Excavation Records at some point after its detachment from the 1936 wall panel, and its identity to its original context was confirmed from the glue marks on the reverse of the drawing which corresponded to those on the panel.
Having familiarized myself with the items that we had, my next step was looking at the few surviving photographs we have of the exhibition itself, located in the BSA SPHS Image Collection (formerly the SPHS Photographic Collection donated to the BSA by the Hellenic Society many years ago. Read more about this in Archive Story: The Gradual Decline and Reinvention of the SPHS Photographic Collection). I had hoped that this might allow me to see what some of the missing items looked like, so I knew what exactly I was looking for. Unfortunately, one of the first things I noticed was that some of the items we had recorded as exhibition panels were not the same the items originally displayed, particularly for some of the panels from Mycenae.
The section of the exhibition displaying pottery finds at Mycenae consisted of original artwork of these finds. Many of these were later cut apart and used for other purposes – though it rarely, if ever, was clear what these other purposes were. Before or during the cataloguing of the Mycenae Excavation Records it seems that some attempt was made to reconstruct the exhibition panels, however the photograph we have of the exhibition shows that this was not always done correctly. Using the BSA SPHS image, I have managed to regroup the images into their original exhibits.
The same photograph of the exhibition did, however, give us some luck in identifying a lost piece of the exhibition. A small folder was found on a shelf in the photo archives labelled ‘Queries for identification’; there was no reason to assume that it contained part of the exhibition, but it was worth looking at anything of uncertain providence. Using the BSA SPHS photograph of the exhibition, it could be identified as the missing “Gold pendants from necklaces” as described under 116e in the exhibition catalogue.
Another important part of creating a proper archive catalogue for the 1936 Exhibition Collection is creating links to other items that are already part of the archive so that researchers can easily access all the information about the same image. Most of the photographs used in the exhibition came from the original SPHS Photographic Collection (now the BSA SPHS Image Collection), and in the process of identifying the corresponding SPHS reference number for the surviving items, I also used the photographs of the exhibition itself to identify the SPHS number of some of the items that we are missing, with the thought that, if these items somehow appear in the future, they can more easily be identified as being original piece of the exhibition. (And also because it was fun. I felt like a detective.)
Of the south room, dedicated to the excavations at Perachora and to other, smaller excavations and activities carried out by members of the school, there were fewer SPHS photographs and fewer fun discoveries. In fact, what stands out the most from this room the extent of what we are missing.
Tackling the final room described in the catalogue, the west ‘Byzantine’ room, always promised to be less simple than the east and south rooms. The items exhibited here belonged in 1936 not to the BSA but to the Byzantine Research Fund (BRF), and it is to there that they returned after the end of the exhibition; the majority of the BRF collection did not come to the BSA until the 1990s. These have already been catalogued, and some have been conserved: very few remain the way they were exhibited, and they are stored among those that were not.
While the descriptions in the exhibition catalogue were vital for even starting to locate the missing pieces of the exhibition, they alone were not enough: a description reading “416: The Church of the Holy Apostles: Elevation” is only so useful when we have five illustrations of elevations for this church. For many of the items in the BRF, other clues were needed to help confidently identify which items belonged to the 1936 Exhibition Collection.
Some were simple, with a number attached akin to the exhibits in the east and south rooms, or the original exhibition board attached with the number written on the back. Even many of those that had had the board removed in the name on conservation were still identifiable, with the edges still folded over where the board used to be, or remnants of glue visible on the reverse.
However, there was much more variety of display in this room than the others. Some pieces – mosaics rather more easily identifiable from their catalogue descriptions – were found with brown card frames attached. Thus, where the remains of such frames were visible stuck to the corners of other, less certain items, it can be extrapolated that these were to items used in the exhibition.
Again, the BSA SPHS Image Collection came into play. An image of a mosaic with a caption of its exhibition number and description confirmed what my initial search led me to believe; not all of the BRF drawings used in the 1936 exhibition are in the BSA’s possession.
What happened to the missing pieces, or to the physical items used as part of the exhibition, is a question that will have to be put off for another day and another intern or volunteer. With the last remaining days of my internship swiftly approaching, my goal is to finish the catalogue of the items that we have, or at least get it to a state where every item is identified and numbered, even if some details still need to be filled in at a later date.
British School at Athens
For more on the 1936 Exhibition, see also the Archive Story: 1936: Exhibition Season & The British School at Athens
Images from the BSA-SPHS Image Collection are available on the BSA’s Digital Collections page.
Click here for more BSA Archive Stories.