Words, pictures and me at the Archaeological Museum, Zagreb

Kick-ass jewellery and kicked out relationships – two things I will remember from my time with Zagreb museums and their labels.

As a dedicated lover, I recognise this as kick-ass jewellry, as statusni simbol, in any time and any language. (Archaeological Museum , Zagreb)

As a dedicated lover of jewellery, I recognise this as a kick-ass piece, a statusni simbol, in any time and any language. (Archaeological Museum, Zagreb)

Visiting museums always make me think about what the words in museums are for – one of my favourite things to think about.  Zagreb’s Archaeological Museum and the Museum of Broken Relationships take very different approaches to words. Today’s post will be about the Archaeological Museum, my next about  the Museum of Broken Relationships.

For now (at least), I am going to suggest that museums are places where people go to encounter objects of power. They promise a kind of magic. A place apart from my mundane life where I can encounter different people, hear new stories, find objects of meaning. I may become enchanted there – or disenchanted. Words are a part of that.

Words can weave around and through the displays, like an incantation. They ususally sit in the gap between the visitor and the object – possibly as bridge, possibly as a barrier. They can be an opening or an obstacle.


I enjoyed the more direct connection with the wearer of these ornaments that the image evoked. (Archaeological Museum, Zagreb)

I tend to rely on words, probably too much, in museums and elsewhere.

The Archaeological Museum persuaded me to leave words behind. No rationalising verbal comfort blanket for me this time, I had to go visual. Once I was over the shock, the plunge was worth it.

The Archaeological Museum has catered well for international visitors like me; they know we cannot read Croatian. So they give us pictures instead.

Deprived of  words,  I was surprised how eloquent and evocative visual language was. How much more of myself and my life experience it seemed to include and involve.


Images gave me a point of reference.  The object, and maybe more importantly, the inspiration behind it became familiar. I felt I could better understand the vessel and where it stood in the world. (Archaeological Museum, Zagreb.) 

I was impressed by the depth and resonance I found using images as a bridge, rather than words. This was a more intuitive, imaginative, less conceptual, more friendly, relationship.

Taking a visual approach focused my attention more sharply on the objects. We very often say that museum text should do this. My experience at the Archaeological Museum made me think that a picture can ‘say ‘Look at …’ in a more open and inviting way than words.

We interpretive writers should beware of seeing our task as giving visitors answers. Answers, especially definitive ones, tend to be the end points of conversation. I believe we want to provide conversation openers.


Even my practical, scientific curiosity was addressed visually. It would have taken a lot of words to explain this. (Archaeological Museum, Zagreb)

But of course there were limitations. I have no idea what the map below shows.  However, by the time I saw it I was so enjoying ‘going visual’ I had a guess. Interestingly my French Conversation tutor taught me the value of that a few years ago: he always told us to guess when we thought we couldn’t understand. Doing that, we found we were almost always, at least somewhat, right. I realised there is a lot more to communication than the literal meaning of the words: there is the sense behind them (which may in the end be more important).

On that principle, I decided to go for the sense behind this map. I guessed it is either about where the stuff was made (dark red) and where it reached through trade (pale red) or it is about how some technique spread through time.  Croatian readers could tell me how close to the truth I am.

The truth is I don’t really care. I appreciate the fact that I was enjoying this visit so much that I was exploring the map and its possible meanings, digging into it for possible answers, being creative with the evidence. It was a relaxed and playful process.  A well-crafted label could have put a stop to that.


In 2014, because of this museum, I shall be renewing my efforts to write words that start, rather than close down, trains of thought, flights of fancy, and imaginative journeys for museum visitors.

I will also be looking ever more closely at the way we use images and not just for multi-lingual contexts.

And will continue to cherish the visual creatives who I am fortunate to work with.


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