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Haffenreffer museum exhibit combines modern science with ancient worlds

Interactive displays allow viewers to delve into Brown’s collection of Egyptian artifacts

Upon entering the cool, dark lair of the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology, visitors are greeted by an engraved tomb, a mummified figure and small bronze fish. The objects are part of the museum’s latest exhibit, “Uncovering Ancient Egypt: Ancient Crafts, Modern Technologies.”

Curated by Jennifer Thum GS and Julia Troche GS, the interactive exhibit features collections that Brown researchers are currently studying.

While the Haffenreffer has featured interactive exhibits in the past, it has not provided many opportunities for people to learn about the archaeological work that goes into understanding the objects displayed, Thum said. The exhibit aims to show the audience how modern technologies such as X-rays, CT scans and photography can teach about the construction and uses of ancient objects. “We want to give people a chance to get to know what the researchers do,” Thum said.

Researchers rely on new technology to distinguish between objects that appear similar but were in fact manufactured differently. For instance, University researchers used XRF, which involves shooting lasers to uncover an object’s elemental composition, to analyze the seemingly identical bronze fish figures. The analysis showed that the fish may have different metal compositions: While some date back to ancient Egypt, others are likely modern fakes.

The analysis of the objects in the exhibit required a joint effort across the Brown community, said Troche. One of the objects featured in the exhibit is a mummified ibis, a large bird. To determine whether the mummy was real or replicated, Thum and Troche collaborated with members of the Alpert Medical School and Rhode Island Hospital to perform CT scans and X-ray analysis on the object. The scans revealed that the mummy contains an entire ibis inside, and researchers are currently working on producing a 3D print of the ibis skeleton for further study.

The exhibit was also designed to be accessible to children and the larger Providence community, Thum said. The limestone funerary slab featuring images of tomb owners involves a hands-on element: People can switch lights on and off to view different parts of the block, she said.

“We have put in many different layers to cater to the different audience members,” Troche said. The exhibit also includes iPads with PowerPoint slide shows for people interested in exploring each artifact in more detail.

Thum said she would like the audience to think about the process that goes into figuring out what an artefact at a museum is and where it comes from.

“We want the audience to get a sense of agency from this exhibit, to feel like they are part of this process,” Troche said. “We want them to participate in the discovery and analysis of these pieces and to learn with us.”


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