Among the revelations he has divined from his 40 years study are the original blueprints for Noah’s Ark, and the rulebook to an ancient board game called Ur. He will outline his Noah’s Ark discoveries when he delivers the Sir Charles Nicholson Lecture at the University of Sydney this Friday evening.
Finkel was just nine years old when he decided with absolute certainty what he would be when he grew up. At an age when most boys are dreaming about becoming astronauts or train drivers, he knew he wanted to be a museum curator.
“I came from a rather bizarre family who used to go to the British Museum even when it wasn’t raining,” he says. “I got hooked and decided early on that’s what I wanted to do.”
To Finkel, the British Museum is “the most important building in the universe”.
“It really is the most marvellous place to work,” he says. “What I so admire about it are the precepts under which it was set up; which are to rescue and look after, for the long-term future, the achievements of mankind and to explain them to visitors truthfully and honestly, to make things freely available and to promote understanding.
“Our job is to tell the truth about stuff. It’s a responsibility but it is also a wonderful thing.”
The best way to ensure the survival of museums is for lots of children to come.
More than most, Finkel has had cause to reflect on a growing tendency in some quarters to discount expertise as elitist and self-interested.
“The disregard for truth founders on the fact that no one trusts expert opinion,” he says. “It’s not only invention which is a wicked thing but also the fact that they don’t trust people’s authority. It’s a very, very messy time.”
But at least one of the benefits of being a scholar of ancient civilisations is the ability to take the long view of mankind’s foibles.
“It imposes upon you a kind of long-term perspective about everything,” he says. “It emboldens you to disregard the madness which might be prevailing now. It cannot always be like that in the future.”
Finkel’s work has also led him to conclude that we have evolved very little, if at all from the culture of the ancients.
“There’s no change,” he says. “We’re not more intelligent. We’re not more anything. We’re just all the same. The soldiers and merchants and farmers and scribes and the rest that made up these ancient communities would be personally recognisable to us if we were able to talk to them.”
While Finkel doesn’t necessarily fear for the future of museums he does detect a cooling in public support. Inspiring in children the same wonder at ancient objects that he felt as a boy, he believes, is the key to the institutions’ survival.
“The best way to ensure the survival of museums is for lots of children to come,” he says. “Not as a school party because when it’s on a school party they’re only interested in their sandwiches and buying something in the shop. They need to come in smaller groups and go around with a curator who is interested.”
Occasionally Finkel comes across inscriptions the author has deliberately tried to encrypt.
“When one of these comes up it kills me,” he says. “And then when you [decrypt] it you feel like punching the air. You say, ‘After all this time that clever bugger thought he was going to fool everybody and now we can read it’. It’s all to me very much alive.”
Sir Charles Nicholson Lecture, 6.30pm, December 6, the Nicholson Museum, University of Sydney.
Nick Galvin is Arts Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald