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  • Writer's pictureLivi Adu

Who was the first curator in the world? Ennigaldi-Nanna

Introduction

As a museum professional, I am continually inspired by the rich tapestry of history that unfolds within the walls of museums. One story that particularly resonates with me is that of Ennigaldi-Nanna, a Mesopotamian princess credited with establishing the world’s earliest known museum around 2,500 years ago. Her story is a testament to the power of preservation and education, and it challenges the often Eurocentric narrative of museum history.

This exploration is not just an academic exercise but a celebration of a woman who, against the backdrop of a male-dominated narrative, used her passion for history to educate others. It’s a reminder that the roots of our profession are intertwined with the story of a woman from what is now modern-day southern Iraq, who saw the value in preserving the past to educate the future. As we navigate through this narrative, I hope that Ennigaldi-Nanna’s story will inspire you as much as it has inspired me. Let’s begin


Who was Ennigaldi-Nanna?

Ennigaldi-Nanna, also known as Bel-Shalti-Nanna, held significant roles as a Mesopotamian princess and the high priestess of Ur, located in what is now modern-day southern Iraq. Born into royalty, she was the daughter of Nabonidus, the king of Mesopotamia from 556 to 539 BC. Ennigaldi-Nanna's upbringing in the intellectually vibrant city of Ur, under the influence of her archaeologist father, King Nabonidus, ignited her passion for history and archaeology.


In 547 BC, Nabonidus reinstated the office of entu, or high priestess, of Ur, a position that had remained vacant since the time of Nebuchadnezzar I in the 12th century BC. Ennigaldi-Nanna was appointed to this prestigious role. The entu, devoted to the moon-god Sin (also known as Nanna), held the highest rank among priestesses in the land, believed to be divinely chosen by the deity and revealed through omens. Typically, entu came from royal lineage, being either sisters or daughters of kings. Ennigaldi-Nanna likely adopted her priestess name, Ennigaldi-Nanna, at this time, as it translates to "Nanna requests an entu."


The image shows a dark stone tablet with carvings on it. A figure, whose face is obscured, is prominently featured in the center of the tablet; it wears detailed attire and holds a basket and stalks of plants. The attire consists of layered garments with intricate designs, giving a sense of royalty or significance. To the left of the figure are carvings of flowers or plants, adding to the aesthetic appeal and possibly symbolic meaning. Surrounding the central carving on three sides are columns of inscriptions, likely in cuneiform script, indicating an ancient origin possibly related to Mesopotamian cultures. The overall mood exudes historical significance, with elements suggesting this could be a royal or religious artifact.
AI generated image of a Mesopotamian priestess


Ennigaldi-Nanna: The First Curator

Ennigaldi-Nanna's inclination towards archaeology and history can be traced back to her father, Nabonidus, a pioneering archaeologist who conducted extensive excavations and notably attempted to chronologically date archaeological artefacts, making him the earliest known figure to do so in history. It's evident that Ennigaldi-Nanna's interest in these fields was deeply influenced by her father's endeavours.


Education in Mesopotamia was remarkably advanced, with the invention of cuneiform writing. Students attended schools called edubbas, or "Houses of Tablets," where they learned to write in cuneiform script on clay tablets. These educational institutions, often associated with temples, were overseen by priestesses who served as teachers.


Students began their education before the age of ten and typically graduated after around twelve years of study. During this time, they mastered cuneiform script, as well as languages such as Sumerian and Akkadian. Additionally, they delved into a wide array of subjects, including agriculture, astronomy, history, literature, medicine, philosophy, religion, and more. This comprehensive education laid the groundwork for intellectual pursuits, mirroring those undertaken by Ennigaldi-Nanna.


In this light, Ennigaldi-Nanna's establishment of a museum can be viewed as a natural extension of the intellectual and cultural values of her era. Her museum wasn't merely a collection of artefacts; it stood as a testament to the significance of knowledge, education, and the preservation of Mesopotamian history and culture.



The image shows a collection of ancient artifacts displayed on a table and shelves. The central focus is a large stone tablet with cuneiform inscriptions, placed on a stand. Surrounding the tablet are various smaller artifacts including sculptures of humans and animals, pottery, and other inscribed stones. The artifacts are made of stone and clay, exhibiting intricate details and craftsmanship. The background is dark, highlighting the artifacts which are illuminated from above casting soft shadows.
AI generated image of a Cuneiform tablet


The Museum of Ennigaldi-Nanna

Ennigaldi-Nanna's dedication to preserving history and culture was evident throughout her life, influenced by her father's passion for archaeology and her own role as the high priestess of Ur. Around 530 BC, she founded a museum in Ur, showcasing meticulously catalogued and labelled artefacts spanning 1,500 years of Mesopotamian history. Widely regarded as the world's first museum, her groundbreaking efforts in collecting, cataloguing, and displaying these artefacts laid the foundation for modern museum practices.


Her museum was a testament to her deep understanding of history and culture, meticulously organized to reflect the rich heritage of Mesopotamia. Housing a diverse array of artefacts, including clay tablets, sculptures, and cultural relics, each item told a unique story of the past. Ennigaldi-Nanna's motivation for creating the museum stemmed from recognising the importance of preserving Mesopotamia's heritage and using the museum as a platform to educate others about the region's past.


Strategically located near the Ziggurat of Ur, the museum was housed in a temple next to the palace, making it easily accessible to those interested in delving into the region's history. Her methodical and thoughtful approach to museum curation, including innovative categorization and interpretation methods, reflected her dedication to celebrating history and culture in ancient times. The artefacts were displayed side by side, each accompanied by a "museum label" – clay drums with labels in multiple languages, including Sumerian, showcasing Ennigaldi-Nanna's innovative approach to curation.


Establishing the museum was a significant undertaking. Despite the challenges of preserving these ancient artefacts and interpreting their historical context, her dedication ensured the museum's success.



The image captures an ancient building with classical architectural features, including columns and statues, amidst a desert landscape. The building has a symmetrical design with multiple columns supporting the structure and statues adorning the alcoves. There are several people standing in front of the building, casting long shadows due to the angle of sunlight. Ruins of broken columns and other architectural elements are scattered around the foreground. The ground is adorned with intricate tile work leading up to the steps of the building. Sand dunes surround the area, emphasizing its isolation and adding a serene yet desolate atmosphere to the scene. The lighting is dramatic, with sunlight illuminating one side of the structure while casting shadows on other parts.
AI-generated image of museum ruins discovered by archaeologists


The first Curator's Legacy and Influence

Ennigaldi-Nanna's pioneering museum continues to leave an indelible mark on the field of museum studies and cultural preservation. The archaeological discoveries unearthed by Leonard Woolley in 1925 at Ur, now housed in the National Museum of Iraq, stand as a testament to her innovative curatorial practices. The artefacts, meticulously arranged and labelled, showcase Ennigaldi-Nanna's groundbreaking approach to museum curation.


Her museum, recognized as the world's first public museum, continues to inspire modern practices in preserving and interpreting cultural heritage. Her museum's organisation, allowing visitors to understand the chronological progression of history, reflects her visionary approach to museum layout. The legacy she created lives on through her innovative curatorial practices, shaping the field of museum studies and emphasising the enduring value of museums as institutions of learning and preservation.


Conclusion

As a Mesopotamian princess and high priestess of Ur, Ennigaldi-Nanna established the world's inaugural museum around 530 BCE. Beyond artefacts, her museum served as an educational hub, offering insights into Mesopotamian history. Ennigaldi-Nanna's innovative practices, including meticulous artefact collection and multilingual labelling, set enduring standards.


Ennigaldi-Nanna's pioneering role as the world's first museum curator has revolutionised museum studies and cultural preservation. Her legacy honours the past while igniting future innovations. Recognising Ennigaldi-Nanna's influence sparks inspiration for future advancements. Let's reflect on her legacy, encouraging exploration of museum curation history to shape our institutions and studies. Understanding our past shapes our future.


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