Small Museum, No Small Feat

Assorted jugs and juglets from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary sites being cataloged and organized for the use of visiting scholars.


Small Museum, No Small Feat

Museum Studies Intern at The Kelso Museum of Near Eastern Archaeology - Fall 2017

The Kelso Museum of Near Eastern Archaeology is nestled in a corner of the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary’s basement, boasting treasures from the Herodian palace in Jericho, remnants of the long dead cities of Bab-Ed-Drah and Tel Beit Mirsim, and countless everyday relics of lives once lived in what is presently considered Jordan. The Kelso is kept open and alive by curator emeritus Dr. Nancy Lapp, part-time head curator Jennifer Hipple, and a handful of diligent but tirelessly busy work-study students and volunteers. I never expected an easy internship, but the challenges a small, understaffed, underfunded museum grapples with on a regular basis left me at a loss, particularly after my hands-off experience interning with the Smithsonian last summer.

My mission this semester has been to aid the new curator in two tasks: updating any and all texts in the museum, and rethinking the way visitors interact with the museum. Some seven drafts and three months later, the final wordings of the item labels are still facing final revisions, a testament both to the complexity of properly portraying the museum’s intended voice as well as to the detriment a lack of full-time staff imposes. Originally printed (and still displayed) on computer paper held in place by hat pins, almost 300 labels need reprinting and reformatting on a durable but thin material called polystyrene in order to better impress the archeological and scholarly authority of the museum upon the public. Though Jennifer is given only a couple thousand dollars a year to update and upkeep the Kelso, a significant portion of this year's budget has been allocated to professionalizing the wall texts and labels. Because such a variety of printing materials and inks are considered acidic and ‘gassing’ (or emitting gasses that can harm or alter artifacts), the large part of the budget is necessary to ensure the safety of the ancient and oftentimes priceless artifacts of which we are stewards. Smaller museums like the Kelso constantly find themselves forced into this type of compromise, unable to update educational materials for the sake of preservation, and sometimes even vice versa.

The secondary task of improving visitor experience continues to come to fruition in simpler ways like making exhibits more visually accessible and cohesive, improving general accessibility for those with increased needs, or making explicit what visitors may and may not touch through (yet unprinted) signage. It was in these smaller, more obvious tasks that it became apparent how much more there was to learn in a small museum. Unlike a larger and better funded institution, the Kelso inadvertently offered me the opportunity to get my hands dirty in every type of job, mostly just because someone needed to do it but there are never enough hands nor enough time in the day to do half the things that need doing, particularly while still giving both public tours and private, more specialized talks.

Though I’ll be sorry to say goodbye to the Kelso and the family that comes with it come December, I’ll be sure to take my sweet time panting and wiping my brow between now and my next attempt at being a museum-variety jack of all trades.

Learn more about the free-admission Kelso Museum of Near Eastern Archaeology in East Liberty here

Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here

  • Academic Interns
  • Undergraduate Work
  • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh