Blog Post #33: The Lux Project with Melissa Funke

At Peopling the Past we occasionally feature interviews with educators and researchers who have founded amazing new projects dedicated to making history, archaeology, and related subjects more inclusive.

For starters, what is the Lux Project?

The Lux Project is an undergraduate research and digitization project focused on the Hetherington Collection, a collection of around 450 ancient Mediterranean artifacts housed in the Anthropology lab at the University of Winnipeg. A team of about a dozen student volunteers led by me (Melissa Funke) is photographing, researching, and teaching the public about these objects. We plan (hopefully within this academic year) to have images of many of the objects available to other researchers and the public through the university’s website.

Egyptians items laid out across a table, while a few remain packed inside a box.
Egyptian items from the Hetherington Collection

How did this project get started?

Like many new projects, this one started over a round of beer. I was speaking with a former colleague and a former student who had worked with the collection: I had never even heard of the Hetherington Collection and while my colleague Michael MacKinnon makes a lot of use of it in his archaeology classes and several students have studied the objects for honours theses over the years, many of our students and community members are unaware that we have a collection of antiquities right here in downtown Winnipeg.

The women who run the anthro lab here, Val McKinley and Jodi Schmidt, allowed me and Simone Obendoerfer, who was working on her MA with a specialization in curatorial studies at that time, to come in and start experimenting with photography in the lab.

Once we had developed a system for creating digital records of the objects we started bringing undergraduate volunteers into the lab every week for more photography and research. In a city far away from any major museum collections from the ancient Mediterranean, it’s a great way to bring the ancient world to life for our students.

Can you tell us more about the Hetherington Collection? What have you learned about its history?

The collection itself is a little mysterious. It began in 1903 with a gift of several dozen ancient Egyptian objects given by the Egypt Exploration Society (EES, at that time the Egypt Exploration Fund). In that period, the EES was sending small collections of objects from digs in Egypt all over the world and this was part of 3 nearly-identical shipments of objects to Mount Allison in New Brunswick, Wesley College in Winnipeg (the predecessor of U of W), and a Methodist pastor in Vancouver. We aren’t entirely sure why those 3 places were chosen, but they are all connected to the Methodist (now United) Church, so there may be a link there.

Over the years, the collection grew to include oil lamps from ancient Palestine, a collection of miniature pottery vessels that may be from Macedonia, and many more Egyptian objects from a wide variety of periods. By the 1960s, it was known as the Hetherington Collection, named after the Reverend A.E. Hetherington, who was Dean of Divinity here in the 1920s and may have acquired some of the objects on a trip to Egypt and Palestine in 1928. Unfortunately, documentation and cataloguing of these objects over the years has been inconsistent at best, so we are also carefully researching the objects and working with archival materials to identify how they arrived here in Winnipeg. It’s been a great lesson for the student researchers in data management and the ethics of how antiquities moved beyond their countries of origin in the early 20th century.

Black and white photograph of A.E. Hetherington.
Image of A.E. Hetherington
Photograph of a letter from the Wesley College Registrar that was found in their archives.
Letter from Wesley College Registrar, 1903, EES Archives
What types of skills do students develop working on this project?

Since we are doing hands-on research with the objects in the Hetherington Collection, students are learning how to identify objects based on typology and how to document and catalogue objects for future researchers. Students are also learning how to do archival research, digital preservation, and data management as we build our database. We also do outreach in local schools and retirement homes, so our volunteers are learning some valuable presentation skills. We try to pair students’ interests and goals with their contributions to the project, so an education student might help with a school presentation or a geography student might help us map out the places of origin for the objects.

What are some of the challenges you have encountered working on this project?

Aside from dealing with inconsistent documentation of the collection, which has actually led to some really fascinating archival research, our biggest challenge is that the Lux Project is headed by me, since my expertise is in Greek literature and drama! Luckily my colleague Michael has helped out from time to time as have some of our archaeology colleagues from the University of Manitoba. We’ve also been fortunate to bring some visiting researchers into the lab or for virtual visits, including Dr. Ross Thomas from the British Museum who helped us identify some of the objects and pointed out some fruitful avenues to pursue in our archival work.

Lamps from the collection spread out across a long table.
Lamps of the Hetherington Collection
Can you tell us more about the outreach goals for this project?

When it comes to outreach, we want to bring the ancient Mediterranean world to life for people in the local community by sharing the collection. Our biggest goal is to get local kids excited about antiquity: the Manitoba curriculum features ancient cultures in grades 3 and 8, so a lot of our work has focused on that. We’ve done a few classroom visits, including lamp making and talking about archaeology with elementary students. One of our most fun projects was making worksheets for pandemic-related remote schooling based on some of the objects in the Hetherington Collection. Even though we designed them to complement our local school curriculum, they’ve been used by people from as far away as Taiwan.

Two students photographing a small object laid out on a white background.
Photographing the objects
Students gathered around a box of pottery, examining the pieces.
Studying the Egyptian pottery
What are your long-term goals for this project?

In the long term, we want to get the digital images we’ve created available to other researchers and the public through our institution’s website. We also want to work out a sustainable system of data management so that new information can be added and future researchers won’t have to retrace our steps! We’d also like to create more teaching materials like 3-D models based on the collection so that Manitoba kids can feel more connected to the ancient world. Living in a remote Northern community shouldn’t prevent a child from having access to the excitement of learning about the ancient Mediterranean through these objects.

Two students at a table analyzing some lamps. One is writing, the other is looking at a textbook.
Researching the lamps
Students photographing their objects using a lightbox.
Student volunteers photographing the objects
Where can people learn more about the Lux Project and its collections?

Unfortunately the pandemic slowed down our plans to get our images online, so they won’t be available for a few months still, but you can keep up to our activities and find the grade school worksheets here: https://www.uwinnipeg.ca/classics/the-lux-project.html. We also have a Twitter account (@TheLuxProject1) and an Instagram page (uwluxproject).

Dr. Melissa Funke holding up two lamps from the collection
Dr. Melissa Funke

Melissa Funke is Assistant Professor of Classics at the University of Winnipeg and a member of the Ancient Love Letters research network at the University of Leeds. She completed her PhD at the University of Washington with a dissertation on gender in the fragmentary plays of Euripides. Her work focuses on dramatic performance (ancient and modern) as well as gender and status in classical antiquity, particularly as it is depicted in literature; it has appeared in Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies along with several collected volumes. Her current project is a biography of the (in)famous Greek courtesan Phryne that examines the role of anecdote in fashioning literary-historical narratives. She also directs the Lux Project at the University of Winnipeg, which is an outreach project based on a collection of Roman-Egyptian artefacts that aims to make them accessible to both the local community and scholars around the world.

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