Illuminating the World

One star feature of the ‘Bright Ideas’ exhibition is the impressive display of lamps collected from all over the world. Many of the lamps on display come from the Johnston Lamp collection, which consists of over 300 lamps.

I was one of the student curators involved in the display. The class was given the theme of ‘light’ for our exhibition, linking to the International Year of Light in 2015. We chose to focus on human interaction with light technologies and how light has impacted humanity.

This selection of lamps was one of the first displays that we chose, as we wanted to show the importance of light through the presence of artificial light technologies in cultures all over the world and throughout recorded history.

The lamp display includes modern metal lamps and ancient clay ones, some impressive Inuit stone lamps, fascinating temple lamps and a lighthouse lens on loan from the Museum of Scottish , Fraserburgh.

Here are some of my favourites from the display:


Ancient Egyptian Clay Lamp

Ancient Egyptian Clay Lamp

Ancient Egyptian Clay Lamp

This lamp is the oldest one in the University’s collection, dated to 4777 B.C. Its place of origin is unknown, however its collector John Johnston thought that it originated in Thebes, Egypt. The lamp is made from red clay and its shape is thought to resemble a fish or a whale.


Nigerian and Palestinian Lamps

The exact date of these lamps is unknown, but it is thought to be no later than the 8th century A.D. One lamp is reported to be from Nigeria and one from India, yet their design and mechanism are very similar. Both of these lamps would have held oil and had a wick resting on the spout.

Nigerian Lamp

Nigerian Lamp

Palestinian Lamp

Palestinian Lamp


Indian Bird Lamp

Indian Bird Lamp

Indian Bird Lamp

This intriguing lamp is reported to come from India, but its origins are not known for sure. We know how the lamp worked, however; it used gravity to keep the flame burning. The bird was filled with oil and would refill the oil that was burning in the trough below as it depleted.


Puirman Lamp

Puirman Lamp

Puirman Lamp

The puirman or ‘poor man’ lamp was common in Scotland in the 17th-19th centuries. It was made from a splint of resinous fir and, as the name suggests, did not cost much to make yet would still illuminate any space. This lamp stand also contains a simple crusie lamp, which burned fat or oil. These lamps came from Aberdeenshire.


Written by Christina Muir, Communications Assistant

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About uoamuseums

The University of Aberdeen's Museums include King’s Museum and the University's Zoology Museum. The museums can claim to be Scotland's oldest, with records of museums and collections as far back as the late 17th century. Thanks to their status as a Recognised Collection of national significance, the Zoology Museum’s displays are currently being improved, while King's Museum hosts changing exhibitions drawn from across the collections, particularly those formerly in Marischal Museum. Visitors are warmly welcomed to the museums, and there are no charges for admission. Marischal College now houses the Museums Collections Centre, caring for and conserving many of the collections.
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