Petrie in Palestine: a big disappointment

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I must disagree with Neil over this exhibition (see CA 208, page 36). I went to the opening, and to the accompanying lecture, and though the lecture was fine, the exhibition was a big disappointment.

Let us consider the background. Petrie’s main career was in Egypt, but he excavated in Palestine at two very different stages of his life. The first was at the beginning of his career when he dug for a single season at Tell el-Hesi, 12 miles from Gaza, after which he decided that his main work was to be in Egypt, so he left an assistant to complete his excavations in Gaza.

However, by the 1920s, attitudes had changed and he was no longer able to take material out of Egypt; and since he relied on taking material out to reward his sponsors, he decided to return to Palestine, where he dug three further sites. Now what we wanted from the exhibition was a showcase on each of the four sites, describing what he was aiming to find, what he found, what it all means — and displaying the material. For instance, he thought that Tell el-Hesi was Lachish, but he was wrong: we should have been told why he thought it was Lachish, and why he was wrong. But there was none of this. Instead the exhibition was aimed at schoolchildren — a basic introduction to archaeology and to Petrie, very much on the Ooh! Aah! level, with little attempt at an intelligent exposition of Petrie’s work in Palestine.

Of course one sympathises in a way. I talked to the organiser afterwards, who said that if you want to get funding from the government — and today virtually all funding comes ultimately from the government — then one has to aim mainly at schoolchildren and their (non-archaeological) parents. The slogan is ‘inclusiveness’; but unfortunately social inclusion means ignoring us, that is those who know something about archaeology and who wish to know more. We are excluded.

In the short term of course the Petrie, like all other museums, must do what the government demands: but there is a price, and that price is the exclusion of what should be their core constituency. The last generation has been a disastrous one for museums generally, as they have rushed down market like the Gadarene swine, ignoring their core constituents. In the short run, they may get away with it. In the long run, it will be disastrous.

Sadly, I cannot recommend this exhibition to readers of Current Archaeology.



This opinion comes from CA issue 208

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