A woven fabric. It could be purchased in IKEA for pocket change. But it was not. It is an ethnographic artefact collected in Egypt in 2002, more specifically in Luxor in Upper Egypt. The question is; does it qualify as a museum artefact?
Often, ethnographic artefacts tend to be associated with beautifully ornamented jewelry, shrunken heads, and samurai swords. All very spectacular and amazing. Suitable for outstanding exhibitions on the exotic cultures of the world. Or what?
Seen from an ethnographic museum curator’s point of view, things often look very different. In my position as curator, I have had to assess several hundred objects and their potential as museum artefacts over the years. And it is not always an easy task. When we have taken an object into our collections, it is our responsibility in perpetuity. In principle, at least. Each object – which in the museum is turned into a museum artefact – will need handling: it should be catalogued, photographed, packed, and put into neat boxes in the storage room. All in all a very costly affair. Therefore, we need to be really careful which objects we add to the collections.
Back to the question in the title. Does this woven fabric qualify as an ethnographic artefact?
The collector, the Egyptian anthropologist, Reem Saad, writes in the accompanying text on the database: “Made by the same man who weaves woolen carpets and blankets (birda). Customers provide the rags (old clothes) which are made into long stripes before they are woven. This is an example of recycling + conserving resources. Used as a floor mat. Also used as cover for benches.”
For some, I suppose, the answer to the question would be a ‘no’. For me, it certainly qualifies as an ethnographic artefact. Taking the descriptions of the collector at face value (which a curator should not always do), I would take the risk of adding the fabric to the collection – knowing that it will cost the Danish taxpayers some money. In return, they will have the potential of this very woven fabric waiting to be displayed in the museum. For ever and ever. In principle, at least.
//Ulrik Høj Johnsen