Durham University Oriental Museum

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Durham University Oriental 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.