"The Display of Cylinder Seals" by Elizabeth Marriott

 

"The Display of Cylinder Seals" by Elizabeth Marriott

Museums often display objects that were integral to their original culture but are now functionally obsolete and thus unfamiliar to the public. Engraved cylinder seals are one such object. Averaging at only an inch in height, a seal was made of stone or faience whose curved sides were carved with a design ranging from figural to abstract. The seal was then rolled into clay to create a raised design that is the mirror image of the seal. They served mainly administrative purposes; seal impressions on cuneiform tablets could authenticate the document or act as the seal owner’s signature. For this reason, each seal is unique; they were carved with a wide variety of motifs ranging from simple patterns of animals to complex ritual scenes. Although seals are a common sight in many museums that touch upon the history of the Ancient Near East, their small size and complex iconography are a challenge to display to the modern viewer.

Because these objects are relatively common and can be seen as both decorative and functional, museums use several different methods to display cylinder seals to visitors. For example, the Morgan Library in New York City displays the seals chronologically next to a modern impression along with cuneiform tablets, emphasizing their connection to the history of writing. However, because the collection represents the eclectic interests of its founder, Pierpont Morgan, there are very few other Mesopotamian objects in the collection. With this display, the viewer clearly understands the original purpose of the seals but is less familiar with the seals’ place in Mesopotamian culture. Conversely, both the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute frame their collections of seals within the context of a larger collection of Ancient Near Eastern artifacts but while the Met displays these objects for their artistic value, the OI focuses on the archaeological excavations in which the pieces were found.

It is true that each museum faces different limitations in their display of engraved seals and that these limitations affect their display practices. However, it is necessary to study the different display approaches because although each museum has the same goal, to expose the public to these seals, their different approaches ultimately do not tell the same story. 

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