Exploring the Ancient Near East in a museum

On 15 October 2022, the “Exploring the Ancient Near East” exhibition was opened officially to the public at the Museum of Central Finland in Jyväskylä. The exhibition can be visited there until 1 January 2023.

The exhibition was previously at the National Museum of Finland until 4 September, and has moved now to the Museum of Central Finland in Jyväskylä where from 15 October 2022 until 1 January 2023 you can see it once again.

Initial discussions between the Centre of Excellence in Ancient Near Eastern Empires, the National Museum, and the Museum of Central Finland about this exhibition started back in 2017. This collaboration between university and museums developed into a project of its own, something different and more unique than any of us imagined at the start. The Finnish Cultural Foundation-funded project “Making Home Abroad” developed from this collaboration – a project that more closely investigated Middle Eastern heritage objects that were stored-away in Finnish museum collections, made them more accessible through 3D scanning, built education packages around them, and currently develops a video documentary and popup exhibition.

Since 1970 several exhibitions on ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia have been held in Finland – this is definitely not the first. However, the “Exploring the Ancient Near East” exhibition is unique in that it builds a narrative around collections held in Finland today. On the one hand, it admires the people and culture of the Middle East for their heritage, legacies, and innovations that are still shaping our world. On the other hand, the exhibition also shows a more complicated history of the region, an area profoundly transformed by Western imperialist ideologies and turmoil from the 19th century onwards. The exhibition not only discusses civilizations and empires in the Middle East several thousand years ago, it equally is an exhibition about the concept of the ‘Ancient Near East’ within Finnish as well as wider European histories.

Upon entering the exhibition, you will not miss the 2,500 years old Babylonian cylinder prism. This object is for the first time on display since it was acquired by the museum 109 years ago. By moving around it, you will learn how this single artefact, originally placed as a ritual foundation deposit in a temple nearby ancient Babylon, has many different, intriguing, but also difficult histories to tell us in how it ultimately ended up here in this exhibition. By placing this artefact and others that spent much time in museum storages in the spotlight here, it is my hope to show what exciting and diverse stories these heritage objects can tell us.

If you are interested to learn more about the exhibition, the histories of movement behind the objects on display, and the work of the Making Home Abroad project, have a listen to the recent podcast by the Finnish Institute in the Middle East on their podcast series Lähi-itä NYT (in English). You can also watch a Youtube video documentary, Muinaisia Aarteita Suomen museoiden kätköissä, made by Ville Mäkipelto (in Finnish). Finally, the “Exploring the Ancient Near East” exhibition is accompanied by a book, Muinaisen Lähi-idän imperiumit, edited by Saana Svärd and Joanna Töyräänvuori, making the history of the Ancient Near more readily accessible to Finnish audiences.