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Older People in Museums

Ageing in the Ancient Civilisations Gallery Project
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Older People in Museums: Ageing in the Ancient Civilisations Gallery Project

Rebecca Arnott
23rd Feb 2017
By Rebecca Arnott

Collections Officer Becky Arnott tells us about the museum’s work with older people and the wider community.

After attending the recent Age Friendly Museum Network Conference at the British Museum, I found myself inspired to talk about a little-covered subject in museums.

We have been doing a lot of work around wellbeing and older people at Maidstone Museum, first as part of a University research project (Museums on Prescription) and now with Café Culture, our drop-in session for people over 65. The conference brought together professionals from a number of different sectors to explore current Age Friendly practice and discuss how museums and the arts can contribute to people’s wellbeing as they get older.

There were a number of really interesting discussions during the conference, but something that stuck with me was about how society views older people. The stereotypes and images in the media are often ones that older people cannot – and do not – relate to their own experiences of ageing. How can museums challenge and create debate around these portrayals of old age?

While listening to the speakers, my thoughts turned to one of the objects that will be put on display as part of the new Ancient Civilisations Gallery Project – the Hydria (a Greek vase type mostly used for carrying water) fragment attributed to the vase painter Sophilos. Sophilos was working around 570-580 BC and was the first Attic vase painter to depict old age. The fragment at the museum shows Nereus (the Old Man of the Sea) with white hair and wrinkles; a clear indication of old age. What is interesting is that, in an earlier depiction of Nereus by Sophilos, he is represented as a younger man. At the time in Greek vase painting, even older characters were shown in their physical prime.

Every time I see that fragment I think of how pertinent and revolutionary depicting older age (in a positive way – or just at all) still is today. For example, the fashion industry has only recently started using older models in catwalk, television and print campaigns. Last year Harvey Nichols used the model Bo Gilbert – aged 100 – as part of its campaign to celebrate Vogue’s 100th birthday. Sophilos’ Nereus is as dignified and graceful as these modern campaigns are vibrant and aspirational. Of course, these images will also not be relevant to everyone’s experience of ageing, but they can create debate and redress the balance.

Ta-Kush, the mummy who will also be on display in our new Ancient Civilisations gallery, could also be a good cue from which to pick up the discussions of age. Until research was undertaken as part of the project, we believed that she was 14-years-old when she died. The evidence has since revealed she was probably in her 40s. While this is by no means old, it will mean a significant change in how we talk about her life and how we interpret her as a person.

Museums tend to value age – particularly in our objects – and we try to appeal to a broad range of ages in our visitors. We also value the contributions and experiences of our volunteers both young and old, yet there is seldom much debate regarding ageing to be overheard in the galleries. In museums it is your interests rather than age that matter in terms of what you choose to look at and engage with.

However, next time you visit us, you could look out for an object that you relate to because of your age or that you engage with differently at your current age than you did when you were younger. Regardless of age, your perception changes over time.

I have taken this blog as an opportunity to share my own changes in interpretation. I now relate differently to the hydra fragment because of the work we have done has made me more aware of depictions of older people. I also engage with Ta-Kush differently as I previously thought I had lived beyond the age she was when she died, yet it now transpires that she has lived beyond my age. This finding brings a different perspective.

If you or someone you know is interested in joining Café Culture, please just drop into the museum café on the last Friday of the month from 10.30-11.30am. If you would like more information, please call today on 01622 602853 or 01622 602854.