Guest Post! Creepy (Ugly) Object — May 2019

This month’s Ugly Object was selected by Matthew Spunar, who keeps a watchful eye over the Kelsey galleries as a member of the Museum’s security staff. Matthew and his colleagues in Security spend many hours with the artifacts that are on display, and they notice when something changes, or moves, or in this case, seems to be looking back …

By Matthew Spunar, Kelsey Museum Security Officer

It is a few hours after closing at the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology. No staff or visitors remain in the building. As I walk through the second-floor galleries, I pass by the Roman Architecture display case. I feel as if someone — or something — is watching me. I glance over and see a small marble head. It appears to be looking at me. I look away, only to glance back. It is still looking at me. I quickly walk away, leaving the second floor at a fearful pace.

It sounds like a scene from the movie Night at the Museum. Well, actually, it is closing rounds for a security officer at a museum — the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology. The artifact that was looking at me is labeled “Head of a Little Boy.” But I refer to it as “Creepy Baby Head.”

As a museum security officer, you spend a lot of time in the exhibit galleries. You notice certain objects that seem to draw your attention. I am intrigued by the number of marble heads — only heads — within the galleries. For me, one in particular stands out. It is the Creepy Baby Head.

Museum gallery

Museum case

Marble head of a little boy.
Marble “Head of a Little Boy.” Roman period, 2nd–3rd century A.D. Kelsey Museum purchase, 1976. KM 1976.2.1.

The artifact is a marble head of a little boy from the Roman empire, dating from the 2nd to 3rd century A.D. It may have been part of a child’s sarcophagus, adding to its creepy nature. The artifact resembles a cupid but has both child- and adult-like features. The face has full cheeks and lips. The hair is waived and combed back. The eyes are blank, with no defined optical features. However, these eyes can look at you.

So the next time you are at the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, check out item #6 in the Roman Architecture case, labeled “Head of a Little Boy.” Look at it for a while, then walk away.  See if you feel like you are being watched.  If you do, you will know why I call this artifact the Creepy Baby Head.

 

 

 

From the Archives #41 — April 2019

By Sebastián Encina, Collections Manager

On Monday, 15 April 2019, the world watched as the iconic Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris caught fire and burned. Thankfully, firefighters were able to stop the flames and keep the entire building from burning down. There was much damage, but over time repairs will be made.

As soon as news hit the world of this tragedy, social media was inundated with images of people’s experiences and visits to Notre Dame, bringing the world together. 

For this month’s “From the Archives,” we share the Kelsey Museum’s connection to Notre Dame. On 23 March 1924, U-M photographer George R. Swain was in Paris and had the opportunity to visit the church. The images he took nearly a century ago are now in the Kelsey Archives. In addition to the iconic exterior views of Notre Dame, we get a glimpse of happenings outside as Swain turned his camera around to show canaries for sale in the bird market. 

Notre Dame Cathedral
Notre Dame, Paris. Photographed by George R. Swain (undated). Kelsey Museum Archives GL00677.
Notre Dame, Paris
“Views. Facade of Notre Dame.” Photographed by George R. Swain, 23 March 1924. Kelsey Museum Archives KS234.02.
Birdsellers outside Notre Dame Cathedral
“Views. Canaries for sale at the bird market near Notre Dame. Cité.” Photographed by George R. Swain, 23 March 1924. Kelsey Museum Archives KS234.01.

In time, Notre Dame will be rebuilt, and tourists and Parisians alike will continue to pose before it. There are many photographs to remind us of what this structure looked like at various stages in its long history. Archives around the world, including ours here at the Kelsey, will preserve these memories, and will continue to document this important history.

As a keepers of history and supporters of collections, museums, history, and culture, we here at the Kelsey are grateful that Notre Dame was saved and will survive for future generations to admire.

News from the Conservation Lab — Conservation Conference Season

By Caroline Roberts, Conservator

Spring has officially sprung here in Ann Arbor, which means that the sun is (sort of) shining, the townies are out and about, and the next American Institute for Conservation (AIC) annual meeting is just around the corner. Suzanne continues in her role as VP/ organizer-in-chief of the conference program, whose theme this year is “New Tools, Techniques and Tactics” in conservation. This year I’ve got a pretty cool job too, as I’ll be chairing a special session on research strategies in settings with limited resources (think archaeological sites, small museums, etc.). This is a topic I’ve been interested in for a while, and I was happy when it was accepted as one of six concurrent sessions that are proposed and organized each year by AIC members.

The idea of member-proposed sessions is relatively new to AIC, and a great thing about them is that they tend to cover topics that appeal to conservators who work on different materials (like objects, paintings, books and paper, textiles, etc.). Other session topics include imaging, gel cleaning, and contemporary art conservation. Conservators and scientists presenting in my session work within a range of specialties, including architecture, archaeological materials, indigenous heritage, electronic media, and preventive conservation. I’m interested in learning how these folks figured out how to conduct analysis on materials in remote areas, or adapted a well-known investigative technique to a new research question. In other words, I want to explore the penchant for problem-solving that so many conservators have, regardless of the types of objects they work on.

For any conservators reading this post, we encourage you to drop in on one of these sessions and hope to see you at AIC New England in May!

photo of daffodils
Evidence of spring outside the Kelsey!

Ugly Object of the Month — April 2019

By Caroline Roberts, Conservator

This month’s Ugly Object post is inspired by, and can be found next door to, the special exhibition Ancient Color. Although not part of the exhibition per se, the object’s proximity to the exhibition has inspired some museum visitors to view it and its fragmented marble brethren in a different light. The case to the right of Ancient Color contains a group of marble fragments that were previously a part of large-scale sculpture, architectural elements, and — in the case of our Ugly Object — a fountain. They are also, at first glance, colorless.

statue fragment
Female hand holding a jug. Marble, Roman period, 1st–3rd century AD. Pozzuoli, Italy. KM 2975.

 

Take a good look at this fragment. What do you see? I see a rather creepy-looking hand (think Thing Addams) perched atop some kind of vessel. Look closer, and you might actually see traces of pigment. This is probably true for the other fragments in the case, as well as the majority of marble sculpture and architecture from the ancient Roman world. When we consider what’s missing, we begin to see these fragments in a new way — as shadows of their erstwhile complete and colorful selves. We’ve been able to verify the presence of pigments on a few marble objects on the collection using multispectral imaging and other analytical techniques (see the Bacchus head on display on the Color exhibition), and there is undoubtedly more evidence of color to discover!

Come see April’s Ugly Object on the second floor of the Kelsey’s Upjohn Exhibit Wing. And while you’re at it, check out Ancient Color, on display through May 26.

Announcing the Official Ugliest Object of 2018!

We have a surprise winner in the Ugly Object of 2018 contest! (If we’re being honest, any one of them would have been a surprise.) The bust of Serapis has won by a landslide, having received almost double the votes of any other object. Tied for second place are the sprang fragment and the box of dirt.

Congratulations, you beautiful, ugly, wonderful things. We love you all, winners and not-winners.

winning object
2018’s Ugliest Object of the Year.

From the Archives #40 — March 2019

By Sebastián Encina, Collections Manager

A recurring theme in the “From the Archives” blog posts is coming across random materials and being surprised by what turns up. Often, the archives provide a fun opportunity to learn about the history of the Kelsey’s excavations and of the museum itself. As we have shown, sometimes within those papers are random tidbits that were not expected, such as a recipe for rice.

cigar box

For this month’s “From the Archives,” we present this interesting cigar box. It is labeled “Spanera” and “Havana Cigarillos.” Of course, the Kelsey Museum would not normally collect cigar boxes — or cigars — but that’s not what we find when we look inside.

open cigar box

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When we open the box, we see that it was used for storing thirteen glass plate negatives. From an archaeological standpoint, we may be most interested in the images that show ancient Egyptian artifacts: Bes amulets, fish, various other gods and images, scarabs, and hieroglyphs. However, it is the plates that show people — people posing and having fun — that draw our attention. There is no information in the images about these objects and people. The clues to this puzzle are on the box itself.

As the reader can see, the cover of the box has some handwritten notes on it. First we see “Komter Scarabs I,” followed by “Egypt,” “Maria Luz,” and finally “Scheveningen.” “Komter” refers to Douwe Komter, a Dutch artist who ran an art dealership in Amsterdam from 1902 to 1926. “Scheveningen” is a region of The Hague, Netherlands. Added with the knowledge that Spanera was a Dutch cigar company, we see more evidence that this is all taking place in Netherlands. But how did the Kelsey come to have this box of images?

When we took a closer look at the pictures of people, we saw a familiar figure that is perhaps a clue to the source of the images. The kneeling man at the left in image 001, the face peeking out at rear center in 002, the man on the floor, at left, in 003 — all are a young Samuel Goudsmit (1902–1978), U-M professor of physics from 1927 to 1946, amateur Egyptologist, and friend to the Kelsey Museum. Goudsmit, his wife Irene, and daughter Esther have donated many beautiful and wonderful materials to the Kelsey over the years. In these photos we see Goudsmit in his early days in the Netherlands, his place of birth.

On page 6 of A Scientist Views the Past, the catalogue of a 1982 exhibition celebrating the Goudsmit collection, we find notes from Goudsmit about how in the early 1920s he was searching the art and antiquities dealers in Amsterdam for ancient Egyptian amulets. He couldn’t find any until he came across a small collection in D. Komter’s shop. Komter allowed Goudsmit to borrow the amulets to study, even though he did not purchase them. Are these the scarabs we see in the images?

These plates likely came into the Kelsey collection in 1981 with other Goudsmit donations. They have not yet been catalogued or incorporated into the archives. We will continue to research the images and try to figure out who the other people are. Unfortunately, a search for “Maria Luz” did not reveal much, as it is a common name. However, we hope to provide more information in the future. And we will of course continue to stumble upon more interesting finds like this.

 

News from the Conservation Lab — Conservation at El-Kurru, Sudan

By Suzanne Davis, Curator of Conservation

Last week I returned from a few weeks of work at the site of El-Kurru, Sudan, where a project directed by Kelsey Museum research scientist Geoff Emberling explores both an ancient royal cemetery of the Napatan kings and how an archaeological research project can connect with and celebrate contemporary cultural heritage in the community surrounding it. My time at El-Kurru this year was short but productive, and below are a few of the big highlights for me.

First, I got to work with conservation architect Kelly Wong on multiple projects, including conservation planning for the El-Kurru pyramid known as Ku. 1. This included a lot of fun investigation and problem solving, as well as mixing and testing of construction mortars. Our favorite mortar formulation was then applied to a joint in the pyramid to see how it will hold up over the next year. If you’re reading this as a conservator (or a mason) and thinking, But wait, isn’t that pyramid dry masonry? Yes, it is. But we have an interesting situation where the walls are moving in response to pressure from the rubble core, thus we’re testing different methods for stabilizing the outer masonry shell.

two women mixing mortar
Conservation architect Kelly Wong (left) and I mixing test batches of mortar. Photo by Caitlin Clerkin.
Woman brushing stone blocks of pyramid
Kelly at the Ku. 1 pyramid, preparing a joint for a mortar test. Photo by Suzanne Davis.

 

Second, IPCAA student Caitlin Clerkin and I recorded a series of short videos for an upcoming Kelsey exhibition — Graffiti as Devotion along the Nile: El-Kurru, Sudan. For these, we asked people to tell us either about their favorite ancient graffito at the site, or to share something they wanted people to know about the site. Each person had something different to say, things we probably would never have heard if we hadn’t been doing these videos! Among the people we talked to were Anwar Mahajoub and Bakri Abdelmoneim, both of whom work on the El-Kurru project but are also from El-Kurru village. They talked about growing up playing soccer within sight of the ancient cemetery and how they feel about their work now, as part of the international team working to study and preserve it.

Three people at base of ruined pyramid
Filming Anwar Mahajoub and Bakri Abdelmoneim in front of the Ku. 1 pyramid. Photo by Caitlin Clerkin.
Two men
Anwar and Bakri, in a still from the video. Photo by Suzanne Davis.

 

A third thing I really enjoyed was an afternoon spent baking bread with Marwa Mahajoub, Anwar’s sister. And yes, I do consider this conservation work! If bread isn’t an important form of cultural heritage to celebrate and preserve, I don’t know what is. Marwa has worked with the project for several years, and when Anwar discovered that a group of us were interested in baking, he volunteered her to teach us how she makes the bread for their family. Happily for us, she was cool with this. Bread is a big deal in Sudan — it’s not only your main carbohydrate at each meal, it’s also your utensil. Many people don’t have ovens at home and instead buy bread at one of several town bakeries, all of which use wood-fired ovens. Fresh bread out of one of these bakeries is fantastic but, as we discovered, the bread is even more delicious when it’s baked at home.

Two women baking bread
Marwa Mahajoub supervises as I shape bread for baking. Photo by Caitlin Clerkin.
Woman baking bread
Marwa pulls freshly baked bread out of her home oven. Photo by Suzanne Davis.