When one of the sessions finished early yesterday morning, I popped into the Nicholson Museum in the Quadrangle of Sydney University. Sir Charles Nicholson was the Speaker of the Legislative Council and one of the founders and early provosts of the University of Sydney. In 1856 he embarked on a three-year Grand Tour of Europe where he purchased a huge tranche of artefacts which he shipped back to the University. He also arranged for the manufacture of the stained glass windows for the Grand Hall, which were the topic of conversation between Nicholson and Queen Victoria and Price Albert. Prince Albert questioned the historical authenticity of some of the windows and Queen Victoria expressed interest in seeing some images of Sydney,
The exhibition at the museum at the moment is called “50 Objects, 50 Stories” and it’s fantastic- one of the quirkiest exhibitions I’ve seen in a long time.
When you peep into the (free) museum, you think that it’s going to be full of Greek urns and marbles. But when you look more closely it’s just as much an exploration of the concept of provenance, as of the objects themselves, all presented in a cheeky riot of type fonts and puns.
So we see some medieval lead figures that turn out to be fakes created by William Smith (Billy) and Charles Eaton (Charlie) in 1857 to sate the demand of eager dealers: a bold but not illegal entrepreneurial enterprise. There’s a terracotta figure that can be appreciated as either a big-hipped female figure or, alternatively, a phallus that was excavated at a site that yielded hundreds of the objects, yet nearby sites contained nothing similar. Another fake perhaps? A ‘kitten’ found in Tutankhamun’s tomb that was x-rayed by University of Sydney graduate Sir Grafton Eliot Smith in his role as Professor of Anatomy at Cairo ended up being a bag of bones and not a cat at all.
There’s the unexpected artefacts: a rather mundane 19th century tableaux of English Royal Seals turned out to contain, underneath, the bones of the Duke of Burgundy (1371) that were looted during the French Revolution. There’s tales of perilous sea journeys conveying the artefacts, where Lord Hamilton, the cuckolded husband of Emma Hamilton was delighted to find that a case of greek urns that he thought lost on the bottom of the ocean, turned out to have been sent in an earlier ship.
There’s a fragment of Homer’s Iliad, procured and donated by the 1937 Professor of Greek at Sydney University, Enoch Powell (yes, THAT Enoch Powell).
There are artefacts that have no stories at all, and the panel makes reference to the opposite situation in Edmund de Waal’s book The Hare with Amber Eyes where the artefact is lost, but the stories remain. There are suggestions of pretty dodgy collecting practices: a Palaeolithic stone axe handle that was just handed over for the museum as part of the imperial desire to ‘spread things around’; the example of the US Ambassador to Cyprus in 1872 who sent home 35,573 artefacts to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Then there are the female figures that were transferred to Nicholson out of India immediately after the Indian Independence Act. The display notes the conflict between archaeologists, who insist on rigour and provenance, and connoisseurs who emphasize beauty and financial value.
This is a fantastic display, curated by Michael Turner, and not an electronic screen in sight!