During the planning stages of special exhibitions or permanent installations, it is a common practice in museums to involve consultants; scholars with specialized knowledge who assist the curators in researching objects. For The Fertile Goddess, we were very lucky to have Ellen Belcher as a volunteer consultant. Ellen came and spent a glorious and fun early September afternoon in storage with us looking at all the figurines and shared hours of editing with me on the labels and wall texts for the exhibition. She is an Ancient Near Eastern archaeologist and art historian whom I have known for years. We have been in classes and seminars together at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University and at Columbia University, where she is currently a Doctoral Candidate in Art History and Archaeology – along with working full time as a librarian at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Early in 2008, I attended a lecture at Columbia titled, “Embodying the Halaf: Prehistoric figurines from Northern Mesopotamia,” that Ellen gave on her dissertation topic. Co-curator of The Fertile Goddess Maura Reilly and I were already discussing the possibility of focusing on the Fertile Goddess for the next Herstory Gallery exhibition and featuring the Halaf period figurine from our collection. I came away from that lecture – and a subsequent one in May – with a greatly increased understanding of these figurines and other types that existed in Neolithic Mesopotamia. Ellen’s perspective was particularly important because of her work in the field; since 1995, she has excavated in Syria, Jordan and Turkey, where she has been a field supervisor and small finds specialist at the 6th millennium site of Domuztepe for the past decade. Many questions remain about the functions of these figurines in ancient societies and current scholarship has come to consider provenance and archaeological context crucial issues for any understanding of these objects.
I also was inspired by the work of another colleague (and good friend) in a more indirect way while I was researching our so-called Bird Lady figurines from Predynastic Egypt. Aware that other figurines types existed in Egypt during this period, I was able to see some actual examples In the Predynastic and Early Dynastic Egyptian galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with extremely informative chat labels written by Diana Craig Patch, an Associate Curator of Egyptian Art there. I felt that Diana, like Ellen, had thoughtfully framed the questions of function and interpretation that still surround these objects. The Predynastic period is one of Diana’s specializations and, having worked extensively in the field in Egypt, she has a strong understanding of archaeological background and issues. I was therefore delighted when both Ellen and Diana agreed to speak at a panel which will take place tomorrow in the Forum. This is a chance for them to show the numerous other types that were contemporary with the two earliest figurines in the exhibition, the Halaf figurine from Mesopotamia and the Bird Ladies from Egypt and to discuss their latest thoughts about the possible functions and interpretations of these objects. Perhaps they will also share their thoughts about being a feminist archaeologist in the 21st century.