What we don't know can't hurt us; Our museums depend on incomplete expertise
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 17 March 2009)

Five or six millennia ago, long before Stonehenge was built, the Trypilians flourished in the forest steppes of what's now Ukraine. They built the largest towns in Europe, each of them with 10,000 or 15,000 people. These Neolithic hunters and farmers are the subject of The Mysteries of Ancient Ukraine, an exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.

Until very recently, I didn't know that the Trypilians existed. But when I found myself among them at the ROM, they struck me as a perfect example of what me might call creative ignorance. We learn a little about them, but knowing that much just makes us want to know more. Crucial questions about them remain unanswered, even though the first settlement was uncovered 113 years ago by a pioneer Ukrainian archaeologist.

Museum work proceeds in the murky half-light of eternally incomplete knowledge. In a really good museum, just about every object stands surrounded by an invisible pool of unknowing.

On the same day I visited the Trypilians, I spent four hours at the ROM's 30th annual research colloquium. Every year, several hundred members of the public gather in the basement auditorium to hear 20 or so curators talk, 15 minutes apiece, about their research projects. This year, they described Chinese tombs and South American bats, Nigerian sculpture and flightless birds. What I found remarkable was that just about all of them mentioned the severe limitations on their knowledge.

This is revealingly typical yet rarely noted. The museum is the only public institution that routinely explains, in great detail, what it doesn't know.

The Trypilians had altars but we don't know what they worshipped. Alongside the usual Neolithic pots and jugs, they produced at least two designs all their own.

One ceramic piece, frequently made, looks like a pair of binoculars -- two connected empty tubes. In the exhibition (which ends this Sunday), the binoculars stop you dead. Did the Trypilians use them to focus on the stars?

To hunt game? No one knows. They also made a toy house on stilts, but apparently never built any actual houses off the ground.

In their large towns every house had a big lot, so that if you photograph one of their towns from the air (2,000 have been discovered so far), it looks like an early version of a North American suburb. Obviously they took their communities seriously, but every 60 to 80 years, for some damn reason, the people of a town would burn it to the ground and move elsewhere. Why? No one knows.

Sometime around 2700 BC, the Trypilians vanished, long before anyone had a chance to write them into history. "It is uncertain why this culture disappeared," is about all that archaeology can say. Perhaps they exhausted the land. Perhaps the Indo-European peoples who were expanding in those centuries pushed them aside and they scattered. There's no telling -- yet. But, almost certainly, the grandchildren of the Ukrainian archaeologists who worked on this exhibit will know better.

A curator's life calls for patience on a level few of us could achieve or even imagine. The work consists of long periods of frustration interrupted by occasional revelations that induce wonderment. Preparing another current exhibition, the Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, involved a different kind of ignorance: The ROM had to overcome, partly by accident, its own unawareness of an object owned even before the museum opened in 1914.

A century ago, sometime between 1905 and 1909, C. T. Currelly brought back to Canada a papyrus scroll obtained in Egypt, probably in Luxor. Currelly was the ROM's founder and its most energetic collector; this was one of his many acquisitions, bought from a dealer who had presumably acquired it from a grave robber.

Apparently no one at the ROM knew precisely its meaning and no one had touched it since Currelly's day. The papyrus, hardened by age, looked terrifyingly fragile, so stiff it was ready to crack and fall apart at the touch.

It turned out to be a Book of the Dead, a set of paintings and spells made to order for a prosperous Egyptian around 320 BC. A Book of the Dead was a guide to the afterlife, instructions to lead its owner to paradise, with drawings of what paradise would look like when he reached it.

Scrolls made for that purpose have aroused interest for generations, but in the mid-1990s they became a specialty of Irmtraut Munro at the University of Bonn. Munro and her graduate students created a data base, the Totenbuch-Projekt, to gather data on every Book of the Dead in the world, some 4,000 in all. Because dealers often chopped up a Book of the Dead and sold the parts separately, many examples are now dispersed in the museums of three or four cities. The Bonn scholars are reuniting them, in digital form.

When Munro visited the ROM a few years ago, she predicted that Currelly's Book of the Dead would repay examination. Eventually, with money raised by the ROM's Friends of Ancient Egypt, conservators came from Germany to unroll it, working in a humidified tent that moistened the papyrus and kept it from further damage. Now it's stretched out on a table, 6.5 metres long, on view for the first time since the priests placed it in the grave 23 centuries ago.

Lettering on the papyrus says it belonged to someone named Amen-em-hat, who remains shrouded in ignorance. What was his profession? One word in the same text may indicate what he did but no student of ancient Egyptian can translate it. His wife may have been buried near him but did he have any children? We don't know that either.

In a sense a museum of cultural history and natural history like the ROM is a cathedral to ignorance. Everywhere you turn in its galleries, you encounter unanswered questions. Every discovery like the Trypilians or a Book of the Dead leads to difficult questions. Each generation of curators raises fresh issues and necessarily leaves most of them to be answered by curators of the future. Ignorance, properly deployed, arouses curiosity, and curiosity is the root of wisdom. "I am the wisest man alive," said Socrates, "for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing." The perfect museum curator.

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