Colonising the past: the case of the Ancient Middle East

Black and white photograph of local people excavating a dig site

Local people employed to excavate the site of Kish, southern Iraq. Such photographs helped to present archaeology as a scientific practice but one that the foreign excavators controlled, helping to reinforce notions of colonial claims to the heritage of the Middle East.

Article by Paul Collins, Jaleh Hearn Curator of Ancient Near East

In 2018 the Ashmolean developed a strategy designed to proactively address issues of equity and inclusion. Called ‘Ashmolean for All’, it aims to improve the way the Museum represents, works with, and includes diverse communities and individuals: existing visitors, potential visitors, staff, and volunteers. Part of this work involves rethinking our institutional history and the stories we tell in the galleries.

Founded in 1683, we are rightly proud that the Ashmolean is the world’s oldest public university museum. The Museum today, however, is largely the result of 19th-century collecting when new ways of thinking about the world emerged that divided the natural world and the human world. The emergence of racial science also separated people into different races and placed them on a sliding scale from ‘primitive to civilized’, a system that was applied to contemporary as well as ancient societies. Artefacts from societies deemed to belong to the ‘civilized’ world – those of Europe and the lands associated with the Bible (pre-Islamic Egypt and the Middle East) – came to form the core of the Ashmolean’s collections, while collecting other objects was seen as the role of new Oxford University museums: the University Museum of Natural History, the History of Science Museum, and the Pitt Rivers Museum. 

Among the projects being developed across the ​Ashmolean, to highlight and challenge this racist construction, are ​two that focus on the collections from the ancient Middle East. At first sight, these objects – created between two and ten thousand years ago by diverse societies across the region from Iran to Egypt – might seem to have little relevance for thinking about the modern world. Through the redevelopment of the Museum’s permanent Ancient Middle East gallery as well as a temporary exhibition, however, we aim to show how such objects can tell more than just ancient stories.

The idea of a single ‘Ancient Middle East’ (an unabashedly Eurocentric term) developed from the notion that developments in the region (such as cities and writing) lay at the origins of Western civilization (itself a problematic term). This concept often shaped the arrangement of museum displays while Western colonial occupation or influence provided the objects. The refurbished gallery in the Ashmolean will highlight some of these stories. While the gallery will be organised around displays that focus on the lives of the ancient inhabitants rather than on ideas of ‘progress’ through time, there will also be a case dedicated to the history of how the collection was acquired as well as spaces for contemporary (co-curated) responses to modern stories involving the heritage of the Middle East.

A more focussed temporary exhibition will explore one period of the Ashmolean’s collecting and the relationships between heritage and identities. Owning the Past: From Mesopotamia to Iraq, currently scheduled for late 2020, will be a dual language (Arabic – English) display exploring the origins of Iraq through the lens of archaeology. At the end of the First World War, Britain was granted a mandate to administer the former Turkish Ottoman Empire’s province of Mesopotamia, establishing it as the Kingdom of Iraq. Between 1923 and 1933, a major archaeological excavation led by the University of Oxford in southern Iraq removed thousands of ancient objects to the Ashmolean. Meanwhile, the borders of the country were being drawn and while some communities were included in the new state, others were excluded. To explore the impact of these events on people in the region, we have involved members of Oxford’s Syrian, Iraqi, and Kurdish diaspora with the help of paid Community Ambassadors. Listening to their views about the events of 1914 to 1932 (when Iraq nominally gained independence of Britain), and what these meant to them as individuals as well as to their communities, we have sought to represent them in the exhibition. The exhibition will therefore be an opportunity to highlight the long-lasting impact of the past on the present, explore what is meant by heritage, and introduce voices and stories of people not previously visible in displays devoted to the very histories and heritage of their homelands.

By Paul Collins, Jaleh Hearn Curator of Ancient Near East

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