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The Mountford Humanities and Arts Communication Prize Winners 2024

all 7 participants of the 2024 Mountford Prize, stood in a line, with Dr Mountford in the centre. Wood panelling background where 5 black and white scenic landscape pictures hand in a gold frame

On Monday 12 February, Girton College celebrated the Mountford Humanities Communications Prize. The Prize brought together students who each chose an object from any museum and explored with the audience the hidden meanings that object might be conveying.

The students’ entries were considered by an audience and a panel of judges including Girton alumna, Papyrology expert and TV personality Dr Margaret Mountford. 

The four prize categories encompass the judges’ choice of winner, the audience’s choice, a prize for the best abstract and a special prize for the best presentation about an object from the College’s very own museum, The Lawrence Room.

Three students this year were awarded the four prizes, and have shared with us what they presented and what winning means to them in their own words.

Hadeal Abdelatti (Law), Abstract and Judges Prize winner

I am deeply passionate about human rights; it is one of the main reasons I decided to read law. Being British-Sudanese at a time when strong calls for social change were being made allowed me to learn about the many dimensions involved with changing such complex socio-political conditions. Participating in this prize has provided a powerful opportunity to give a talk on one of the many forgotten conflicts, and their treasures. I was very grateful to win, particularly as I enjoy public speaking, and I was able to do it whilst discussing a topic that was very important to me.

The current war in Sudan, though seemingly distant, has had a substantial impact on Sudanese people, including my family. When I saw the theme for this year was based around treasure, it occurred to me that the ‘Fidaw’ or Gamar Boba earrings, part of what my speech was based around, felt like treasure to me. The nature of the earrings, where they came from and what they represented, soon became a much more nuanced and complicated process.

At this stage, I decided to write about treasure and conflict; how many treasures, museums and people have had the identity of their objects transformed by conflict. I endeavoured to consider the future of treasure, amidst war, repatriation and the return of displaced people: how can we tell their stories and avoid them becoming lost?

Any summary of my words on the evening would be incomplete if I did not recount a very important line I repeated throughout my speech: Al Gamar Boba aleyk tageel (Arabic translation below) which inspired me to think in more depth about why my earrings felt like treasure.

القمر بوبا عليك تقيل

These words were sung to me by my late grandmother (I opened my speech by singing what she sang to me, putting my Girton College choir training to use!) They are lyrics from a very famous Sudanese song by Mohammed Wardi, meaning you are so delicate, you are so precious that even these earrings are too heavy for you.

Through this I discovered that my earrings hold many stories, from both Sudan and from wearing them in the United Kingdom. I also spoke about national treasures and museums becoming vulnerable during conflict. As our treasures being so delicate and precious, we must do our best to protect them.

Isabella McLeod (English), Audience and Judges Prize winner

My entry was titled 'Treasuring the Eccentric', and was about the Tempest Prognosticator, which is a very peculiar type of barometer that used leeches to predict the weather, and was invented by a Whitby man named (rather appropriately) George Merryweather in the 1850s. 

I spoke about the simultaneous gravitas and humour of the Tempest Prognosticator and how its ultimate treasure is the act of uncovering stories of our eccentric and profoundly human forebears, which can help us to apprehend our common humanity. 

I included the new historicist Stephen Greenblatt's essay 'Resonance and Wonder', which discusses the issues of display and exhibition in museums and the risks of decontextualisation. 

I concluded that as well as treasuring the strange Tempest Prognosticator, for all its silliness, we should treasure its home, the Whitby Museum, as a place as much about memory as artifacts and is a chamber of 'resonance'; and through its democratic means of acquisition (anyone can contribute artifacts to it) history is unfinished, as its treasures are still growing.

I was delighted to speak to my peers and the judges about Whitby, a place that means so much to me and, quite frankly, more people ought to know the curious story of the Tempest Prognosticator. Above everything, I love the opportunity to make a room of people laugh, as I think comedy often is the best way to convey a message.

Alasdair Harrison (Archaeology), Lawrence Room Prize winner

I loved the opportunity to muse on the fascinating human consequences of an object, and to win the Lawrence Room prize was a rewarding end to a fantastic evening of brilliant presentations.

Object LR 783 is a small terracotta figurine of the early fifth century BC, from Boeotia in Central Greece. After acquisition by Girton College in 1902, it has been loaned to museums and art galleries, uncritically labelled ‘dog with cake and bird’. Its subject does, however, feel familiar. What if, as long argued by Gillian Jondorf, this rag-tag group represents a fable of Aesop? If the disc was a round cheese (not a ‘cake’), and the mammal a fox, the scene fits the fable of ‘the Fox and the Crow’ rather well – where, through flattery, the fox steals cheese from the mouth of the cawing bird. 

Oral accounts tend towards invisibility in the archaeological record, and, even when materialised, it’s rare to identify the story itself – even grand mythological narratives are easily lost, let alone short moral tales as this. I mused on some of the human consequences of this treasure, what else can the elusive gaze of this small fox tell us? Can the wheel of cheese point to tangible treasures in food? How widely were Aesopic tales appreciated in antiquity? What might the sculptor, working the clay by hand, have intended? Can this terracotta, as an actant, still affect us today? This figurine is an everyday object, tying together strings of thought, use and experience. Existing in a cloud of possibilities, this terracotta represents tantalising equifinality and a multiplicity of interpretations.

Top image: all the participants for the 2024 Mountford Humanities and Arts Communication Prize with Dr Margaret Mountford.