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The Ure Museum of Greek Archaeology

Introduction to 'The Ure Museum: a Retrospective' (26 October 2005)

Welcome everyone, to this celebration of the renewal of the Ure Museum. I am the nearest thing to be found in the Classics Department to Annie Ure. When she died in 1976, after 54 years as Museum Curator, someone from the Department had to take over. The choice fell on me, a Roman historian. Thankfully, the Head of Department enlisted Brian Sparkes to be my mentor and adviser. He had known Annie Ure for many years, and also knew the collection well. He taught me a great deal: my mistakes are my own.

The Ure Museum has been radically remodelled, and thanks are due, for practical and financial aid, to an enormous number of institutions, museums, university departments and individuals -- far too many to identify here and now -- but we do intend to let them all know how grateful we are. For now, I want to single out just three people: the Smith duo and marvellous Martin.

Amy Smith, curator, got the money, got the designer of her choice, recruited an army of volunteer helpers, and worked non-stop thereafter.

Rhianedd Smith (Rhi), assistant curator, generally responsible for the access and educational activities of the Museum, was Project Manager. She kept everything on track and, so far as possible, on time. She's been living and breathing (and probably having nightmares about) the project for months. She's about to leave us to begin work as Undergraduate Learning Officer in the University's new CETL in Applied Undergraduate Research Skills, but we're glad she is still to be around in Reading.

Our designer Martin Andrews, of the School of Arts and Communication Design, was a brilliant choice. He's a Renaissance man, both ingenious and versatile. He actually built much of the new display himself. He's a sort of combination of Handy Andy Kane and, mutatis mutandis, Lawrence Llewellyn-Bowen, and can turn his hand to constructing anything, from a tiled roof to an ancient grave.

You'll have an opportunity to see the results presently. This afternoon, we are celebrating not just the Museum, but its creators, Percy and Annie Ure.

Percy was Reading's first Professor of Classics, arriving in 1911. In the same year, Annie Dunman Hunt started studying Classics. She was one of our first Classics graduates, but technically she had a London degree (Reading didn't get its charter until 1926), and so, at the 50th anniversary celebrations of the charter, the University was able to honour Annie's lifetime of service and scholarship with an honorary doctorate. She died ten days later, after receiving a stream of messages of congratulations and appreciation from scholars all over the world. She had been Honorary (i.e. unpaid) Curator of the Museum for 54 years.

Between them, Percy and Annie served the University for nearly 100 years, and produced 6 books (three of them on the Rhitsona finds) and over 80 articles. The Rhitsona excavations, and their subsequent detailed publication, made an enormous contribution to the dating and classification of Greek ceramics, a subject at that time not far advanced. The Ures also built up one of the foremost, and most widely representative, collections of Greek and Egyptian antiquities in the country, and used it for teaching.

This is the fourth incarnation of the Museum. There was, in a sense, a Museum before there was a Museum, which was officially started in 1922. Percy Ure brought to Reading, on his arrival in 1911, a small collection of sherds and fragmentary vases, including some from Rhitsona. In 1914, the British Museum gave him 45 sherds and small vases ('rather battered', according to Annie). All this was kept in a small glass case in the Professor's room. The University College already had a collection of items from Flinders Petrie's excavations, which had been donated in 1909-1910, and in 1913 Alfred Palmer's sister-in-law, Mrs. Barry, donated her collection of Cypriote antiquities: her husband had been Quarantine Superintendent and Sanitary Commissioner in Cyprus in the early 1880s. All these were brought together when, in 1922, the Museum officially came into existence and was given a whole room to itself in the Department. The Department was further authorised to spend some of what was known as its 'laboratory grant' to purchase for the collection. Over the years, with a combination of purchases, some with the aid of grants, and of donations, the Ures built up a collection representative of almost all the main fabrics, types and periods of Greek pottery. The collection was also enriched, especially in South Italian wares, by the inclusion on loan, of most of Reading Museum's collection of Greek pottery. These are about to be published by Amy Smith in a volume of the Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum (Reading's second in the series).

Not surprisingly, the Ures made a special effort to acquire Boeotian pottery, Annie's life-long passion. At the time of her death, she was still collecting material for what she hoped to turn into a book: sadly, the work was not far enough advanced for that to be possible. The Ure Museum's Boeotian holdings, however, are outstanding. One of our project helpers, Kirsten Bedigan, is a Glasgow PhD student, sent here by Elizabeth Moignard specifically to gain experience of Boeotian pottery.

When I took over the Museum, and began to immerse myself in its contents, I also learned a certain amount about the Ures. Percy was an inveterate picker-up of fragments. The entire first page of the Museum inventory, actually written by Percy Ure years later, but dated 1911, lists fragments picked up from among the bushes, or bought from children, at Rhitsona. He appreciated the educational value even of fragments. So did I, eventually. After transcribing onto record cards, one by one, descriptions of some fifty fragments whose provenance was given as 'picked up or bought from children at Mycenae', I realised that I had learned a lot about the typical decoration of Mycenaean pottery. He was also an inveterate smoker, as witness the many cardboard cigarette boxes in the cupboards, which, when opened, revealed more fragments and small finds.

One of the striking features of the collection, as of the Ures' excavation publications, is the inclusion of a lot of archaic and plain wares. This was still unfashionable in the early 20th century, and attracted some criticism. The Ures clearly thought otherwise: they published them. They also bought them for the Museum. For instance, in 1926 and 1929 they acquired, in two lots, a large collection, mainly of small items of plain black glaze, belonging to a Mrs. Steele, who had worked for the company that drained Lake Copais. Nowadays, it is generally accepted that it's not just the pretty stuff that's important: plain Janes and fragments may tell us more.

Annie Ure continued curating, and writing, for a quarter of a century after Percy's death. Scholars from around the world came to visit, and she used their expertise to get attributions. But she didn't hesitate to disagree. There's a story that Sir John Beazley was once returning to Oxford with someone -- I think it was Dietrich von Bothmer -- whom he'd taken to visit Annie and the Ure Museum. He was rather quiet, and eventually asked 'Did Annie really say what I thought she said?' 'Yes, John, she did.' What she had said was 'It's too bad to be Boeotian -- it must be Attic'.

Photograph of Ure inv. 47.6.2A-B

Annie Ure's partiality for things Boeotian did sometimes led her astray. She would have liked Sam Wide, a rather cute late 5th century ware, to be Boeotian; one of our Sam wide pyxis appears to show a young Dionysus in the guise of an agricultural god, with feature found in Boeotian cult. Sadly, it turns out to have been made in Corinth. Annie was not, however, blinded by Boeotia and, after visiting Mrs. Stilwell in Corinth, promptly published her belief that Sam Wide was a Corinthian fabric (in "The God with the Winnowing-fan," Journal of Hellenic Studies 72 [1952] 121). Annie had a good eye, though. She believed that certain items thought to be Attic were in fact Euboean; so she allowed a young John Boardman to take core samples to try out what was then a new technique of clay analysis. Boardman indeed found a match with Euboean.

Scholars were not the only visitors. Annie Ure always welcomed the opportunity to talk about her collection to lay visitors, and especially to explain to schoolchildren what it could tell us about the Greeks and their way of life. She liked to teach, informally. In the late 60s and early 70s, Arthur Adkins encouraged her to give a series of seminars to our students. They enjoyed them so much that the Atrebates, the student classical society, asked her to give them a talk about the Rhitsona excavations of 1921 and 1922. The glass slides, and the tape recording of her talk, were the backbone of an exhibition we mounted in 1992 to celebrate the centenary of the University College, and 70 years of the Ure Museum. Some of these images are in our new display.

Photograph of Rhitsona picnic

One picture in particular, and Annie's comment, stays in my mind. The photograph at right was taken when some archaeologists came to visit from Athens. They are posed informally, sitting on the ground, but not in the t-shirts, shorts and trainers that would be today's wear. The men are in three-piece suits, with high collars and ties, the women in long-sleeved shirt-waisters and ankle-length skirts. All rather stuffy, one might think. But Annie's comment was: 'We picnicked under the trees, while the little tortoises paraded around us in the grass.' That, more than anything, brought home to me how much Annie had loved the time spent at Rhitsona.

In 1957, the Museum moved, with the Department, to its present site, with what were then state-of-the-art purpose-made cases. The display was, and very largely remained, until the present remodelling, the traditional scholarly, taxonomic variety, with labels meaningful mainly to specialists. The display has now radically changed, to meet modern requirements of accessibility, and to cater to the ever-increasing use of the Museum as a supplement to primary school studies in the National Curriculum. School groups visit regularly in term-time. Activity days in school holidays are regularly booked out. The displays, accordingly, are now thematic, about the ancient way of life, with explanatory text. The scholarly museum, however, has not gone away. It is still there, and still regularly consulted by scholars worldwide, as a virtual museum, online. There is a wonderfully user-friendly database, designed by Amy's husband, Brian Fuchs, who just happens to be a computer scientist. It must be user-friendly: even I have successfully navigated it.

The Museum now has a very different aspect, but I think the Ures would approve. The children who are enthused by the museum are the future of our subject.

Archaeologists have enormously enhanced our knowledge and understanding of the ancient world. As a tribute to the contribution made by the Ures, the centrepiece of the new display is a reconstruction of Rhitsona 145, the last grave excavated by the Ures in 1922. Our first speaker, Dr. Victoria Sabetai, will be talking about Percy Ure's first excavations at Rhitsona, with Burrows, in the years before he came to Reading and before he met Annie.

This is followed by a talk from Professor Brian Sparkes, about one of the Ure Museum's most interesting vases.

Prof. Emeritus Jane Gardner
Department of Classics
University of Reading

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The Ure Museum, The University of Reading, Whiteknights, PO Box 217, Reading, RG6 6AH
File last modified: 07 Aug 2006