Greek archaeology in the Great North Museum: Hancock — taking the Shefton Collection online

By Andrew Parkin, Keeper of Archaeology, Great North Museum: Hancock

Two halves of a terracotta Greek lion head waterspout. The story of how these two halves were reunited is part of the Stories from the Archive online exhibition.

The Covid-19 pandemic impacted on everyone’s lives in so many different ways. For museums like the Great North Museum: Hancock, it was challenging to try and maintain and develop relationships with audiences when physical visits were limited or, for many months, impossible. The museum responded by producing materials that our audiences could access online. These include a range of virtual museum tours, learning resources that can be used without having to visit the museum and focus days on particular topics which schools and home learners can access remotely. These all went some way towards keeping the museum and its collections in the public eye, as well as supporting our community during the pandemic. The museum has also been involved in collaborations with a number of partners to develop two online exhibitions that highlight the Shefton Collection of Greek Archaeology on display in the Great North Museum: Hancock.

The first exhibition Greece Recreated was developed in partnership with colleagues at Newcastle University and English Heritage. This exhibition is based on the research of Newcastle University’s Dr Susanna Phillippo into the buildings and landscape of Belsay Hall in Northumberland. Sir Charles Monck was responsible for radically developing the Belsay estate in the early 19th century. He was inspired by an extended trip to Greece to use ancient Greek architectural models in his design of the Hall and its surrounding buildings. In a similar way a visit to Sicily, and in particular the ancient quarries of Syracuse, provided him with a wealth of ideas for developing his own quarry gardens at Belsay.

Sir Charles Monck (1779–1867) ©Middleton Archive.

Dr Phillippo’s research uses Monck’s diaries to trace his travels and the ways in which his journeys are reflected in the estate at Belsay. The exhibition allows people to virtually visit the same Greek sites as Monck and gain an understanding of the ways in which he was influenced by the ancient Greek world. Alongside extracts from Monck’s diaries and images of the places he visited, objects from the Great North Museum: Hancock’s Greek collection are used to bring Monck’s journeys and experiences in Greece and Sicily to life.

Belsay Hall in Northumberland: inspired by Sir Charles Monck’s encounters with the remains of ancient Greek temples on his travels in Greece.

Our second online exhibition explores the significance of archival resources for understanding the Greek collection. Stories from the Archive tells the stories of some of the objects in the Shefton Collection, making use of the extensive archive of the collection’s founder, Professor Brian Shefton. We worked with Explore Life Long Learning and Pea Green Boat to develop this exhibition.

Shefton had a long connection with the city of Newcastle. He arrived in 1955 to teach at the University and he spent the rest of his life in the city. During his time at Newcastle University he built up a Greek collection which on his retirement in 1984 consisted of almost 1,000 objects. This collection now forms the basis of the Great North Museum: Hancock’s Shefton Gallery of Greek Archaeology. Shefton’s home was full of things connected to his working life. These included letters, photographs, books, notebooks and annotated auction catalogues many of which related to the archaeology collection he established. This extensive archive, covering 224 metres of shelving, has been lent to Newcastle University by Shefton’s daughter and forms the basis of a research project to understand the collection and its origins.

The late Professor Brian Shefton in the Great North Museum: Hancock ’s Shefton Gallery of Greek Archaeology, 2009.

Alongside colleagues at Newcastle University we set out to develop an online exhibition that outlines some of the object stories the archive has revealed. One of the items we looked at was a small Greek pot, known as a pelike, made in Athens in the 5th century BC. Archive material allowed us to revisit Brian Shefton’s purchase and restoration of this object. We were able to trace its journey from the auction house to the museum; sharing some of Shefton’s obvious excitement as he realised that this was a significant work that nobody else had recognised. His delight at acquiring a bargain is palpable in the papers we have that describe the pelike’s acquisition. There is also a sense of Shefton’s enthusiastic and imaginative engagement with the subject matter painted on this pot as he describes the figures depicted on it.

Attic red-figure pelike depicting a young woman carrying an offering basket on her head, followed by an older woman. About 470 BC.

Other object stories in the exhibition include a statuette of Nike that once belonged to the Victorian art critic John Ruskin, as well as the story of the very last object Shefton acquired for the collection. Even though the exhibition focuses on just six case studies a sense of the range of Shefton’s interests, which cover so many aspects of Greek archaeology, is apparent to the virtual visitor.

Marble statuette of Nike, the Greek goddess of victory. Nike is represented alighting on a globe. Her arms and wings are missing, although sockets for the wings and metal dowels for attaching the arms are still visible.
The top half of a Rhodian Bronze oinochoe (wine jug), the very last object Brian Shefton acquired for his Greek collection in Newcastle.

We are interested in understanding how our audiences respond to online exhibitions. They are a radical departure from museum-based ones and are likely to appeal to visitors in different ways. If you want to comment on Greece Recreated or Stories from the Archive you can do so by following the feedback links on the websites. Feedback will be used to plan future online exhibitions.

Major regional museum, art gallery and archives service. We manage a collection of nine venues across Tyneside and the Archives for Tyne and Wear.