This week, Philippa Williams speaks with MARIANNE BERGERON, a project curator at the world-renowned British Museum.
Marianne tells Iris about her ongoing work on the Naukratis Project, filming in Egypt and why she feels she has fulfilled a dream.
You work for one of the most famous museums in the world. Tell me about its Greek & Roman department.
The Department of Greece and Rome is a wonderful place to work with wonderful people. We have an eclectic group of people specialising in a real mix of fields. It isn’t just all about curators; the department also consists of librarians, administrators, museum assistants and volunteers. We all help each other out when we can and share a similar interest in ancient history, material culture and archaeology.
What is your role within this department?
I was hired a few years ago as Project Curator for the Naukratis Project. My responsibilities are first and foremost to research and catalogue all the 7400 Greek pot sherds that were excavated at Naukratis by Petrie, Gardner and Hogarth in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The material is diverse and comes from various regions in the Greek world, which has meant learning a lot about some pottery that I knew very little about when I first began work on the project. Our results are posted on the museum’s online catalogue but the Naukratis material will also appear in its own catalogue, the first stage of which was published in March this year.
Would you describe your typical working day?
That really depends on a variety of things. If I am at the museum, I might spend the day working in the museum basements photographing material, in my office measuring and cataloguing sherds or in the department library doing research. I and a colleague recently organised a workshop which meant putting away the callipers and the pottery, dealing with the workshop and preparing our own research papers. I sometimes give presentations to individuals and groups in the department or in the museum galleries. I’m also the volunteer coordinator for the project so I teach the volunteers, most of whom are students, about Greek pottery. I supervise their work and help train them in some of the museum’s computer programmes.
A lot of the work we do is in other museums, so we travel abroad quite a bit to museums that also have Naukratis material in their collections. Recently, I worked in museums in England including the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge and the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, the Musées Royaux d’Art et d’Histoire in Brussels, the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, the Redpath Museum in Montreal and the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto where I studied their archives and databases, and catalogued and photographed their objects for our publication.
I’m off to the Louvre in Paris later this summer. We’ve also been doing fieldwork at Naukratis so I spend a few weeks a year in the farm fields there carrying out ground surveys of the area.
Finally, since we want to publicise our project as much as possible, my colleagues and I frequently travel to conferences and workshops to give presentations on our work.
What do you like best about your role?
First and foremost, I love the fact that my role is in the British Museum. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been asked where I would like to work and my answer has always been that my dream is to work at the British Museum. Two and a half years later and I still can’t quite believe it. I also love the fact that I am doing exactly what I set out to do in the first place- hands-on work with ancient objects, doing research and expanding my own knowledge.
The British Museum's Classics exhibitions are clearly highly regarded. What level of planning do they require?
I’m not really involved with the department’s special exhibitions but I have seen what some of the preparation and planning for the current Pompeii exhibition entails. Work began on the exhibition in 2008 with the initial idea of the curator, Paul Roberts. It went on to involve many different people from across the museum, from conservators and specialist object handlers to designers and marketing managers. As 90% of the objects in this exhibition were loaned from the National Archaeological Museum at Naples and the stores at Pompeii and Herculaneum, it also involved extensive planning with our colleagues at those institutions. Planning is not just required for the exhibition itself, but also for the books which accompany it, the multimedia guide and for this exhibition there is even an accompanying app.
Has there been a publication or element of a project which you've particularly enjoyed working on?
I can’t say that there is much that I don’t enjoy about the job; perhaps the more bureaucratic parts such as filling out forms, but these are present in all jobs. It occasionally turns out, when we’ve travelled to other museums, that we don’t know the extent of their Naukratis collections so it is always a wonderful surprise to discover their material. Quite often, these objects have been stored away for decades and have not been seen by anyone for the same length of time. Given that the Greek pottery is almost entirely fragmentary, when I find two sherds that join, often from different collections, I always get a bit giddy.
A couple of years ago, the Japanese broadcasting network NHK filmed a three-part documentary series on three different curatorial departments at the British Museum. As part of their segment on the Greek and Roman Department, they filmed the Naukratis team working in the British Museum and travelling through Egypt, exploring Naukratis for the first time. That was an interesting experience. We attracted a fair bit of attention in Cairo, which we were naturally not accustomed to and the director had us doing things I’m not quite certain how she expected to pull off. She filmed us walking with our luggage, as if we’d just gotten off the plane, up to the Giza pyramids, presumably where we were to bed for the night. Never mind the fact that we’d been in Egypt for several days and all sported dark tans.
What made you want to work within the field of Classics in a museum career?
I’ve always been fascinated with archaeology. As a child, when my parents took my brother and me to London, we’d always make a stop at either the British Museum to see the mummies or the Natural History Museum to see the dinosaurs. From a young age, I collected books on Greek, Roman and Egyptian archaeology and whenever possible, visited ancient sites and monuments. What clinched it for me though was when I, as an undergrad, participated on my first dig in Tunisia. I visited the site of Carthage and fell head over heels in love with the city and all of its Punic and Roman sites. That was it; I knew that I wanted to work in the field of archaeology.
What appeal do you think the study of the Classical world holds for people?
Given everything on TV, in the cinemas and in video games these days, there must be a lot. Not only that, but given that almost 300000 tickets were sold for the Pompeii exhibition, it is clear that people are interested. The Classical world is surrounded in mystery and controversy and I think that attracts a lot of interest. Through these mediums and then museum collections and special exhibitions, regardless of what profession you end up working in, the Classical world is open and accessible to everyone.
How would you like to see the Museum's Greek and Roman output develop?
Given the success of Pompeii, it would be nice to see the department’s next planned exhibition on the ancient history and history of Sicily do just as brilliantly or even better. In the meantime, we do hold regular gallery talks at lunch time on different topics on the Classical world. We also host lectures and workshops for both children and adults so we aim to keep interest in antiquity interesting and relevant to everyone and I think the department and the museum as a whole manage to do that very successfully.
What 3 words would you choose to sum up your experience as a Project Curator?
Unforgettable, challenging and fulfilling.
You can read more about the Naukratis Project at