Ethnography of a Museum


I am experimenting with writing again. So back to the beginnings of my academic journey and ethnographic writing. Without further ado:

An Excerpt

Image of Prehistoric Pottery, Source: Stadtmuseum Riesa,

The smell is difficult to describe, an echo of floor polish clings to the dry air, the worn Lino floors make my shoes squeak, but it smells of something else; I can’t put words to—maybe it smells of age. The ancient artefacts carry their own scent having survived millennia, in the dense clay soil, which was left in our area by the receding glaciers of the last ice age and the river before it settled into its most recent bed. A waft of black coffee occasionally would wander through the corridors, meaning I could have a chat with mum and her colleagues as they were taking a break. It also meant buttered rolls and Kekse—biscuits really doesn’t work to describe the German equivalent.

It smells save, familiar, my home from home. I have a foldable bed in mum’s office from when I was younger and still had to have naps after lunch. The first floor is my favourite, it’s the one with the prehistoric objects, and the Bronze Age child burial, which mum had put in a hidden corner. The small skeleton was still surrounded by his funerary goods. I would often sit with him, when I felt lonely or sad, so he wasn’t so lonely either. But in any case I would make the rounds and say hallo every time I was in the museum which was several times a week growing up. During my holidays I was there daily. There were even more books than at home, and my little friend, and all the artefacts, which with their age provided assurance and continuity since I could remember.

The museum was closed on Mondays, like all museums in East Germany. Mum says I was eight years old. I don’t remember how old I was. There was a couple visiting. They must both have been researchers because they got Monday access, and mum asked me to show them around (guided tours only on Mondays). I remember we were in the first floor and I was telling them the stories about the Mesolithic and Neolithic artefacts. The only reason I remember that is: that I was rather annoyed with the man. The woman was really nice and smiled and nodded, as I told them the stories of the objects. But the man just stared at me, it was so impolite you don’t stare at people like this. Particularly, not when said people try really hard to tell you all the interesting stories and anecdotes—so inconsiderate just to stare. I tried to shake it off and proceeded to explain how Linear Pottery was made when we got to the massive storage urn, while focussing on the smiling woman.

Writing this down reminds me of accompanying my mum or her colleague when they were opening up the floors. The buzzing and clicking noise of the strip lights as the old light switches were flipped on. I loved helping with opening up, walking through the dark rooms and corridors making light. I loved the resistance these old switches had as you flipped them upwards to switch on the light and the consequent buzzing caused by magnetostriction. The wake up yawn of the old lady as she readied herself for another day of visitors, Kaffeeklatsch, and school group visits.

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