British Museum ITP fellows - (in order left to right) Solomy Nansubuga Nabukalu (Uganda), Namrata Sarmah (India) and Rafidah Bahari (Malaysia).
Participants in the ITP course

In a corridor beneath the main hall of the British Museum, out of sight of regular visitors, a group of curators recently held an exclusive exhibition. For just one evening, they put on display a selection of unusual, valuable and often fragile objects normally hidden away in the storerooms. Unlike the blockbuster shows upstairs, there was no attempt to pull in the general public: admittance was restricted to the museum’s own staff.

It was the concluding event of an initiative held each summer to nurture the next generation of curators from around the world. Over the past 13 years, the International Training Programme (ITP) has brought together 276 people from 43 countries for six-week sessions at the British Museum and others around the UK. It is one of several partnerships that the museum hosts to train younger and mid-career specialists internationally.

Yohana Frias of the National Museum of the Philippines pointed to the unusual firing technique and the symbolism of a bird in flight on the elaborately decorated Hunt Krater. The ancient Greek vase, designed to mix water and wine, dates from about 570BC.

“It’s beautiful,” she said, before drawing my attention to the mock-up merchandising she had produced. One lesson she had drawn from her few weeks in London was the potential to create reproductions of crowd-pulling objects, both to generate income and to draw in visitors. “We have no museum shop,” she said.

Hamilton vase or 'Hunt krater'. greek made in Corinth about 575 - 550 BC. found near Capua, Campania, Italy
Corinthian ‘Hunt Krater’ vase (575-550BC)

On the next stand, Solomy Nansubuga from the Kabale Museum in Uganda showed off the wooden canopic chest of Amenemhat, a 3,500-year-old box from ancient Egypt. Next to it were word puzzles, colouring-in sheets and drawings of scales to weigh the heart it would have contained. She was inspired by the British Museum’s efforts to engage children, as well as by simple conservation techniques. “One of the things I’ll do when I get back is to open the windows,” she said. “We can’t even afford an X-ray or freezers, but air is good.”

Frias and Nansubuga were among 23 curators picked this year for the ITP. Neal Spencer, keeper in the Ancient Egypt and Sudan Department, traces the origins to 2003, when Egypt’s then head of antiquities asked for help in training future leaders of the planned Grand Egyptian Museum. “We had Egyptians going to our Egyptian department and Chinese to our Asia Department,” he says. “We started to ask why we shouldn’t bring them all together.”

While other international training programmes linked to prestigious museums exist — such as the Clore Leadership Programme and the Getty Leadership Institute — they tend to focus on senior museum managers. “They don’t have the diversity or the global reach,” Spencer says.

Since its formal launch in 2006, the ITP, by contrast, has sought to bring together younger future leaders drawn mainly from low- and middle-income countries, raising money from various sponsors to cover the £10,000-£12,000 cost for each fellow. This year, the programme included participants from Myanmar, Azerbaijan, Sudan, Rwanda, Nepal, Croatia and Oman, as well as China, India, Turkey and Mexico.

Applicants describe what they hope to achieve, and while in some countries they are recommended by their bosses, in others the British Museum runs open, competitive applications to avoid the risk of nepotism. “We make it clear this is not an end-of-career jolly to London,” Spencer says.

Alabaster Kouros, Naukratis. Greek made in Cyprus about 580 - 570 BC found within the Sanctuary of Aphrodite, Naukratis, Egypt
Alabaster kouros (580-570BC) found in Egypt

The successful applicants attend joint sessions on subjects as diverse as conservation, education, fundraising and working with volunteers. They also spend one-on-one time with their British Museum counterparts to improve particular skills.

The programme includes placements in regional museums, whose more modest resources can sometimes be easier to relate to. “The British Museum is so big, and applying its lessons to use with us who are very small with a limited budget is difficult,” said Chantal Umuhoza from Rwanda, who spent time with the National Museums of Northern Ireland.

ITP participants also take part in sessions for other international programmes, including one created for Iraqi archaeologists two years ago. “Knowing that we couldn’t do anything on the ground to protect cultural heritage in Iraq, we wanted to prepare professionals for the aftermath of this ghastly destruction,” says Jonathan Tubb, keeper in the British Museum’s Middle East Department, who runs the scheme.

Bronze prow-terminal from ceremonial barque in form of a goddess
Bronze prow terminal from ceremonial barque in the form of a goddess

In one seminar last month with the Iraqis — all women this year — Andreas Pantazatos, from the Centre for the Ethics of Cultural Heritage at Durham University, discussed the restorations of the Acropolis, the Mostar Bridge and the Bamiyan Buddhas before focusing on the damage done by Isis, and on Saddam Hussein’s “restoration” of Babylon.

“People are wary of restoration now,” says Tubb. “It’s not ethically acceptable and there are other things you could do with your money. It’s a bitter pill, but if you have money available, is it sensible to plough it into reconstructing one or two monuments to restore them to their state before Isis, or is it more valuable to open up a new archaeological area?”

Spencer insists that the ITP is as much about participants providing insights to British Museum staff as it is about the reverse, and he identifies lasting connections as another benefit. “I’ve seen Egyptian curators meeting their Sudanese counterparts for the first time, and Iranians and Iraqis who say they grew up thinking of each other as the enemy,” he says.

While the British Museum has lent objects to ITP fellows’ institutions and worked on joint exhibitions, a number have also organised their own events with each other. As Sarah Abdolattif Elsheekh from Sudan said, “This is the first time I can meet people from different countries. Now I have 22 friends around the world.”

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