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History of the Museum

The Origins of the Oriental Museum

Oriental languages have been taught at Durham since the University was founded, with Biblical Hebrew being taught as part of Theology from as early at 1835, and Aramaic added later in the 19th century. In the 1920s, under the distinguished Islamic scholar, Alfred Guillaume, Durham University led the way in developing the teaching of modern Arabic language and literature in the UK.

This excellence was recognised after the Second World War when Durham was selected as one of five British universities to be developed as centres for the teaching of Oriental languages. A School of Oriental Studies was founded in 1951 and from this point teaching and research rapidly expanded to include languages as diverse as Ancient Egyptian, Turkish and Chinese.

The first Director of the School, Prof William Thacker, believed that students needed to understand the material culture of the countries they were studying, not just the language and literature and he set about creating a teaching and research collection for the School.

'An Oriental School which aims to teach the cultural background of the oriental peoples must have a museum at its disposal.'

Professor Thacker

Developments in the 1950s

Thacker had been appointed as Professor of Hebrew and Oriental Languages in 1941 and even before the School of Oriental Studies had been formally set up he had begun to acquire collections for his planned museum. The acquisition in 1949 of the Northumberland Collection of antiquities from Egypt and the Near East was a major step forward. When the collection arrived in Durham in August 1950 it was housed in a 'museum' created in Hatfield College. Two rooms were set aside, one for display, the other for storage. The collection could be viewed by appointment in this room until 1956 when it was forced to close permanently and the objects were returned to storage.

In the meantime, in 1953, Raymond Dawson, lecturer in Chinese, was asked to curate an exhibition of Chinese bronzes from the collection of Mr AEK Cull, to mark the Queen's coronation. This exhibition attracted a considerable amount of attention from local and specialist press. It was followed in 1954 by an exhibition in Cosin's Library at Palace Green of Chinese books and textiles. These exhibitions attracted the attention of Chinese specialists and collectors and helped to pave the way for major donations from the Rt Hon Malcolm MacDonald and Sir Charles Hardinge which now form the backbone of the museum's Chinese collections.

Construction of the building

As the collections continued to grow it soon became apparent that a dedicated museum was needed. In 1957 the Lisbon-based Gulbenkian Foundation agreed to donate £60,000 to build the first of three planned phases.

Middlesborough-based architects, Philip R Middleton and Partner, were appointed to build the museum. They were tasked with creating a museum that would meet the needs of the staff and students at the School of Oriental Studies, rather than the general public. The museum was located directly in front of the School's building, Elvet Hill House, though this meant placing it on a steeply sloping site a considerable distance from the town centre. The entrance to the museum was placed at the back of the building, for convenience from the School, rather than facing the main road and a considerable amount of space in the original plans was devoted to teaching rooms.

The Gulbenkian Museum of Oriental Art and Archaeology, as it was then known, opened in May 1960. Already too small for the collections it had to house, plans for use of space in the museum changed even before it opened. A library was abandoned in favour of additional space for the Egyptian displays and the seminar room was lined with collections from the ancient Near East that could not be accommodated in the galleries. Plans for the second and third phases of the museum never came to fruition despite many attempts.

The changing role of the museum

Over the last 50 years the aims of the museum have changed. The museum is still actively involved in supporting teaching and research, working with departments ranging from Archaeology and Anthropology to Geography and Theology. However, we are also open to the public seven days a week attracting almost 33,000 visitors each year including more than 6,000 local school children. This has meant making changes to the museum to meet the needs of these visitors.

In 2000 the museum closed so that an additional mezzanine floor could be added which now houses the Marvels of China displays which provide an introduction to China for the general visitor. The teaching rooms have all been converted one by one into galleries or storage, including a gallery designed specifically for use by schools visiting to learn about Ancient Egypt. Museum staff run a very active programme of activities for children under 11 during weekends and throughout the school holidays.

The collections have continued to grow and the Oriental Museum now houses more than 33,000 objects with collections covering Egypt, the Near and Middle East, China, Japan, India and the Himalayan region and stretching into Southeast Asia. The Ancient Egyptian and Chinese collections are of particular significance and hold 'Designated Status', recognising their importance on a national and international scale.