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Reviewed by:
  • Museums and the Ancient Middle East: Curatorial Practice and Audiences ed. by Geoff Emberling and Lucas P. Petit
  • Lissette M. Jimenez
Museums and the Ancient Middle East: Curatorial Practice and Audiences. Edited by Geoff Emberling and Lucas P. Petit. London: Routledge, 2019. Pp. xxii + 256, 102 b/w illustrations. Hardback, $140.00. ISBN 978-0-8153-4972-3.

This edited volume is the result of two organized workshops: one held at the International Congress on the Archaeology of the Ancient Near East (ICAANE) in Basel, Switzerland in 2014 and the second held at the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) annual meeting in Atlanta, Georgia, USA in 2015. The editors, Geoff Emberling and Lucas P. Petit, comment that the idea to organize such workshops about museum curatorial practices with ancient Middle Eastern collections stemmed from earlier discussions in 2011 when both editors had [End Page 397] been involved in curating and renewing the permanent Middle Eastern galleries in their respective institutions. They recognized the lack of information exchange among curators and scholars and noticed that similar colleagues struggled with how "to exhibit in a restricted space and with a restricted number of objects an immense area and an equally long history to a wider public" (p. xxi). Thus, this volume addresses how curators of art museums, national museums, and university museums have approached these curatorial challenges while aiming to situate the discussions within a broader context of Near Eastern studies. The volume distinguishes itself by being one of the first of its kind to invite a community of curators to reflect on their practice of researching, exhibiting, and engaging visitors with ancient Middle East collections.

The volume contains 16 chapters that discuss topics specific to each curator's work at their respective institution, representing museums such as the Ashmolean, British Museum, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Musée du Louvre, Vorderasiatisches Museum, Dutch National Museum of Antiquities, Jordan Museum, Detroit Institute of Arts, Oriental Institute, Penn Museum, and Archaeological Museum of the American University of Beirut. The volume is divided into five parts: Part I "Introductory," Part II "Perspectives from national museums," Part III "Perspectives from art museums," Part IV "Perspectives from university museums," and Part V "Commentary". The first chapter, "Curating the ancient Middle East", written by Emberling and Petit, establishes the framework for the volume and raises important questions to be addressed such as: What are curators trying to achieve? How have audiences responded to curated exhibits? To what extent have museums moved from being "about something" to being "for somebody" (p. 4)? In this chapter, Emberling and Petit aptly combine their subject expertise with museum studies' analytical literature and theory in a way this reviewer has rarely seen done before with respect to discussions of Middle East museum collections and exhibitions. While all contributors are familiar with the curatorial content of their area of expertise, it remains clear throughout the volume that some contributors are not as equally well-versed or comfortable engaging with museum studies theory. Nevertheless, the efforts of contributors to employ theories of visitor learning, exhibition design, and assessment through praxis is commendable and progressive for the field of Near Eastern studies.

This volume, which functions as a "snapshot" of curatorial practice in 2018, as Emberling and Petit comment, reveals some of the existing "curatorial tensions" among professionals and scholars in the field (pp. 5–9). Throughout the chapters, numerous issues are discussed: from museums taking more object-oriented, research, or service approaches with collections; to tensions between curators, academic scholars, and museum staff (i.e., museum educators, exhibit designers, and interpretive planners) regarding level of involvement and collaboration on exhibitions; to differing philosophies of display at art and archaeological museums by emphasizing either aesthetic aspects of objects or functional aspects and context. The varied opinions described within each chapter illustrate the gamut of challenges museum professionals face when confronted with presenting a vast and complex subject matter with a limited number of objects to an often non-specialized audience. The scope of opinions and curatorial processes will intrigue the reader and underscore the need for these types of productive debates aimed at refining and advancing best standards and practices with respect...


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