What are Museum Keepers?

March 7, 2014

Requests to identify sherds in the museum collection.
Requests to identify sherds in the museum collection.

People often ask me, What does a Keeper do? Which is a fair question—you might think of Zoo Keepers with that terminology. You could equate our work, at the most basic level, as “collections management,” but I think we’d all say we do so much more than that. There are Keepers in all of our museum sections: African, American, Asian, Babylonian, Egyptian, Mediterranean, the Near East, Oceanian. We also have a small European collection [think stone tools, not paintings] as well as an Historic collection. For all of these sections, we have the same title and same basic “other duties as required” job description. But for each section, those other duties differ.

Me? I’m the Fowler/Van Santvoord Keeper of the Near Eastern Collections. And sure, on a daily basis, I care for the collections. I take record photography, I rehouse the pieces, I make sure that their numbers are clearly written and are accounted for in the database. But being a Keeper is so much more. Some days, I transcribe someone else’s research into the database. Some days, I do original research on the objects. I make recommendations on objects to loan to visiting curators. I answer questions from the public. I give tours of storage and galleries. I bring out objects for classes. I recommend objects for classes. But the thing that is the bread and butter of the Near East: researchers. On average, our department alone sees 100 individual researchers a year. I am often asked what my area of expertise is. And I explain that I don’t have the luxury of having one. When a researcher comes I need to be an expert in their subject matter as it interacts with our collection. They might think they know what they want to see when they are here, but my job is to pull the objects they didn’t know we had but I know will help their study. So in one week, I might have to know about third millennium Mesopotamian cylinder seals; locally made and imported Terra Sigilata ware found in Israel [so we’re talking the AD/BC change over]; and 9th century BC metal pieces from Iran. That’s a light week-only three diverse subjects.

Don’t get intimidated—it’s what most of love most about our jobs: the challenge of learning something new every day. I’m often asked what my background is in; my undergraduate degree is in Classical and Near Eastern Archaeology, I worked here at the museum for a few years with the Near East collections, I excavated and taught at a classical field school in Italy for 6 seasons, and my graduate degree is in Art History. So I had the benefit of learning both Classical and Near Eastern sites, statues, pottery types in the classroom; I learned how to identify things from the field level Classically, and just after the field here in the basement of the Near East. I learned how to research and discuss these same materials in a broader sense. I’m diverse, but not really—I couldn’t discuss Manet to save my life.

I received a research request in February, for March [we prefer 3 weeks’ notice so that we have time to locate the objects they request, the objects they didn’t know we had to be requested, and to make sure there is room in the researcher room; again, about 100 a year so most often you are not alone in my researcher room] which was the perfect amount of time. This individual wanted to see Mycenaean ware from a few sites. One site is published with field numbers and often with the museum accession numbers. This part of the request is easy. The other half, even he knew would be difficult. The other site has a publication, from 1933, with black and white images of objects that are very colorful. This site didn’t use a field number system, so I have no way of tracking that publication to the boxes full of sherds. We’re talking thousands of sherds. And so, I have to rely on all those years I studied ceramics. I have to be able to look in a box of sherds, determine if they are likely from the same time period as this imported ceramic, I have to go through all these pieces and see if the fabric looks right, if the thickness is correct, if the painting technique matches what he is studying. And because of all those years studying small pieces of broken objects? I was able to match up 95% of his request.

So yes, we Keepers are collections managers, but ask any of us to tell you about our day, and chances are we didn’t put a single thing in a small box. Those of us who are field archaeologists, get the chance to be archaeologists in storage. And it’s wonderfully satisfying.