Ugly Object of the Month — April 2020

By Caroline Roberts, Conservator

Greetings, Kelsey blog fans! I hope that you are all safe, healthy, and keeping it real at a sound social distance. We weren’t about to let today’s uncertainty get in the way of our ongoing celebration of Ugly Objects. So, it brings me great pleasure to present April’s pick: a seated female figurine from Seleucia. Seleucia on the Tigris was a Hellenistic capital city located south of present-day Baghdad and excavated by the University of Michigan from 1927 through 1937. Over 3,500 objects were recovered from Seleucia, including a myriad of figurines made of bone, ceramic, and stone.

Seated figurine carved from alabaster
Seated female figurine carved from alabaster, with bitumen repair resin at the neck and on the base. H. 12.8 cm. Seleucia on the Tigris, Iraq, 150 BCE–200 CE. KM 15879.

Our seated figurine is made of alabaster, a soft sedimentary stone with a uniquely translucent quality that made it a suitable material for window panes. Alabaster is easy to work, so we find a lot of vessels and figurines carved from it. But that same quality causes the stone to deteriorate easily. The alabaster block used to create this seated figure has broken along its bedding planes, causing the right arm to shear clean off the front of the statue. This type of inherent flaw might be what caused the head to detach — probably while the figurine was in use. Look closely and you can see traces of bitumen resin along the neck and on the base, signs of someone’s effort to repair the figurine in antiquity.

It amazes me how much we can learn from artifacts that were excavated nearly a century ago! Please keep reading our blog and visit the Kelsey website for opportunities to learn more about our collection.

From the Archives #52 — March 2020

By Sebastián Encina, Collections Manager

We are living in interesting times. COVID-19 has changed our daily routines and lifestyles. We are no longer socializing as we normally do. Museums, galleries, and businesses remain closed in order to stymie the spread of the coronavirus. Instead, we work from home as we can, making adjustments to the database, writing policies, connecting with colleagues. We try to carry on as normal — as normal as we can make it.

For Kelsey Museum staff, working from home is difficult, as so much of what we do revolves around art and artifacts. We cannot bring these objects home with us. During this time, our kitchen tables become our offices, our couches our desks. Meetings become virtual, and colleagues get to show off their homes and their pets to their coworkers.

The Kelsey archives also represent the sense of home. For this month’s “From the Archives,” we present several photographs of the Karanis dig house, which was constructed specifically for the staff who worked at the site in the 1920s and 1930s. Viewing these photos gives us a chance to view both the living and working spaces for the likes of E. E. Peterson, Harold Falconer, Frederick Joslin, Joy Fletcher-Allen, George Swain, and so many more. While they were in Egypt, life centered around this house. Work happened here. Laundry happened here. Cooking happened here. Pets lived here. And the residents of the house documented their surroundings and home life.

In these pictures, we see just that. We see the house as it stood in the 1920s and early 1930s (much has changed since its original construction), the staff helping with laundry, with cooking, Mrs. Joy Fletcher-Allen serving as hostess. Less than 100 years ago, the Karanis staff was operating in ways similar to our current experience, albeit under very different circumstances. Eventually, the Karanis staff returned to their normal routines, and in time, so will we.

house in the desert from a distance
The house as it appeared in the summer of 1932. KM photograph 0465.

mudbrick house with flags

Camp house at Kom Aushim (Karanis), with flags flying in honor of H. E. Ismail Sidy Pasha’s visit to the Fayum.

woman seated on wall.
Our hostess, Mrs. Edgar Fletcher-Allen, with our cook Ahmad Muhammed in the background. KM photograph 5.2172.
two young girls standing near a wall
Kamls Siddiq and Saiya Abd el Mula, laundry girls. KM photograph 5.2458.

News from the Conservation Lab — Working Remotely and Conserving Ourselves

By Suzanne Davis, Curator of Conservation

Hello, blog readers. I hope you are happy, healthy, and staying safe. This past week felt like about six, huh? It did to me. Work has changed at the Kelsey, as it has at many workplaces around the world. A small example — I usually work here:

conservation_lab-web

And now I’m working here:

kitchen-desk-web

It’s a little bit different. Not least because my cat feels that humans in the home should equal very frequent snacks for cats. He’s like, “Look lady, we both know you’re sitting right by the treats cupboard. Would it kill you to serve more snacks? All you’re doing is sitting there like a lump. Look alive and give me more of those #$@%! fish crunchies already!”

Conservators’ main job is to preserve cultural heritage for the future, so it’s reasonable to wonder how I’m doing it from a small corner of my kitchen while trying to ignore Flash Kitty. Truthfully, I’m doing conservation-adjacent work, as are most of my colleagues around the country. Here’s a sample of things I’ll be doing over the next few weeks:

  • Recording guest lectures about conservation for colleagues’ classes
  • Taking professional development webinars and online courses
  • Writing up research into publishable journal articles
  • Preparing grant applications
  • Planning future projects
  • Catching up on all the professional reading and newly published research I usually only barely have time to skim

Other conservators I know are recording the oral histories of senior colleagues, writing up treatment and research protocols, and contributing to conservation-focused wiki entries.

It’s also kind of a stressful time right now. Many of us are either at high-risk of serious complications from COVID-19 or have loved ones who are. So please follow public health advice in order to conserve yourselves and those who are more vulnerable than you are. AND there are things you can do to preserve your mental health and reduce stress. Below are the activities I find most useful.

  • Exercising: walking outside, jumping rope, doing yoga or high-intensity body weight exercises at home.
  • Relaxing: UCLA’s mindfulness awareness research center has free guided meditations I like, here.
  • Connecting with friends and family: I’m not normally a big fan of talking on the phone, but I’m learning to like it now!
  • Making stuff with my (carefully washed) hands: conservators will be the first to tell you how satisfying it is to do hand work; we do it for our jobs and most of us love it and miss it if we’re away from it too long. Now might be a good time to take up a handicraft or invest time in one you’ve already got going. There are lots of online videos if you want to learn something new and supplies can be ordered, probably even from your local shops.

Wishing you good health,

Suzanne

Ugly Object of the Month — March 2020

By Caroline Roberts, Conservator

Hey, all you March babies! What’s your sign? Are you a wise and artistic Pisces? Or a quick and competitive Aries? I happen to be a Pisces myself, and I can tell you that this month’s Ugly Object is a real catch. This rotund Roman fish is made of free-blown glass, and whoever made it was clearly working fast. In spite of its speedy manufacture, all the fishy elements are there — apart from the tail, which might actually have served as an attachment point to a larger vessel or piece of jewelry. In my view, the best thing going for this fish is its expression, which reminds me of the protagonist of the modern children’s classic The Pout-Pout Fish (read it and you will understand!).

small glass fish
Free-blown glass fish. Length: 3.7 cm. Roman, 4th century CE. Gift of Alexander G. Ruthven. KM 1970.3.952.

I’ve never blown glass myself, but I imagine it would have taken some serious skill to execute details such as tiny pouty fish lips out of molten glass. As imperfectly blobby as this fish is, there was little room for error in the furnace-filled workspace of its creation.

You can pay this fish a visit in the Kelsey’s Ancient Glass gallery on the first floor. And make sure to check out his piscine pal in the case on the opposite wall!

From the Archives #51 — February 2020

By Sebastián Encina, Collections Manager

Go to the store during the month of February and you are likely to run across several aisles worth of Valentine’s Day gift ideas. Of course, there are chocolates and candies, stuffed bears and other critters, and countless other possibilities to give to a loved one, a child, whomever you wish. February 14th and the days leading up to it are flooded with hearts and Cupids and other symbols of love. It is rather difficult to avoid it all.

For this month’s “From the Archives,” we present our own Cupids in the collections. Though the Kelsey Museum has quite a number of Eros/Cupid artifacts (figurines, sculptures, even coins), this month we choose to share the photographic art held at the Museum, photographs taken primarily in the second half of the 19th century. Though exact dates are not associated with the individual photographs, we know many of them were created in the 1860s and later. Some of the images are attributed to Michele Mang, an Italian photographer who was active in the 1860s, 1870s, and 1880s. We also hold photographs from John Henry Parker, who collected or commissioned photographs of Italy (read more about Parker in Passionate Curiosities: Tales of Collectors & Collections from the Kelsey Museum, by Lauren E. Talalay and Margaret Cool Root). 

In general, the photographic collection at the Kelsey shows art and architecture found across Europe and Near East. The photos here focus on representations of Cupid, primarily in Italy. Some are of sculptures, others of frescos, and one a mosaic. They show Cupid in a number of forms and at a range of ages. We see the baby-like Cupid in KM 2000.1.3210, where he sits at the feet of Apollo, and in KM 2000.1.1696, where several representations hover around Hercules. In several depictions — KM 2000.1.2884, 1961.8.70, 2000.1.2782, and 2000.1.1879 — Cupid is a young boy, no longer a baby. A slightly older Cupid is depicted in images such as KM 1961.8.950, 1961.8.958, and 2000.1.2435, among others. Cupid as a young man is seen in KM 1961.8.633, 1961.8.634, 1961.8.635, and 2000.1.2518. 

Baby Cupid:

Toddler:

Older Boy:

Young Man:

The Kelsey has several depictions of the same work of art, or similar works of art, perhaps taken by different photographers at different times. We attribute some works to certain photographers, but the rest are unattributed.

Cupid/Eros was and still is a popular subject in both ancient and modern art. Though modern popular culture often shows Cupid as a pudgy baby with wings and the famous bow and arrow, he did not always take this form. The collections at the Kelsey Museum demonstrate some of the variations of Cupid that exist. Next time you are at the store purchasing Valentine’s Day gifts, remember that those gifts could include a very different depiction of the famous God of Love.

News from the Conservation Lab — Work in Progress

By Caroline Roberts, Conservator

 Conservators wield some impressive photo-processing skills, in no small part because of the extensive photographic documentation we do in our work. We use our image-processing skills for research purposes, too.

Right now I’m taking multispectral photos of limestone funerary stelae from the Roman Egyptian city of Terenouthis so that I can begin to characterize the pigments that were used to paint them. Pigments reflect, absorb, and/or luminesce ultraviolet, visible, and infrared light in characteristic ways, but capturing a good image of these photo-chemical responses can be challenging.

Luckily we have access to the British Museum’s Technical Imaging web resource, a free downloadable toolkit that includes image setup, capture, and post-processing guidelines. The BM’s protocol has become an essential part of our own multispectral imaging setup, and an important research tool in my survey of color on the Kelsey’s stone collection.

multispectral imaging of an ancient stone stela.
Left: Limestone funerary stela KM 21107 from Terenouthis, Egypt, late 2nd–early 4th century CE, during multispectral image capture. Right: Infrared / visible image alignment in the British Museum technical imaging workspace.

Ugly Object of the Month — February 2020

By Suzanne Davis, Curator of Conservation

Love is in the air, gentle readers. It’s February, and St. Valentine’s Day is just around the corner. Maybe you’re hoping to receive something special from your significant other, or maybe you’re hoping your love life will receive a boost this month. Either way, we’ve got the object for you: it’s Eros on a pyxis, and he’s bringing a gift. What could be better?

1977_03_0002-1-web
Clay pyxis with lid. Rim diameter 6.4 cm, height 7.8 cm. Ca. 5th–4th c. BCE. KM 1977.3.2.

Exactly what’s happening with Eros in this scene is a little unclear. You would think that the Greek God of Love and Sex would have it made, but on this pyxis it looks like that’s not the case. For one, he doesn’t have any feet. Granted, Eros does not actually need feet, because he has wings. But still. It just seems lazy on the painter’s part. You can paint giant wings and a truly freakish hipbone but you can’t bother to put ankles and feet on those legs? Come on.

Two, Eros appears to be holding a cushioned stool as he flies up on some poor, unsuspecting woman, and she really doesn’t look into it. Maybe she truly doesn’t want the stool, or maybe the painter hasn’t accurately captured the spirit of the moment.

The woman could be Psyche or, you know, not. The Eros / Pysche thing is complicated and — once again — the painter of this pyxis is not giving us a lot to go on. Why would Psyche / unknown woman want flown-in furniture? Maybe she ordered it on Amazon and instead of delivering it by drone, they sent Eros instead?

The woman is standing in front of what looks like a dovecote, which might mean something. Or not. My husband, who is 100% an expert (but not in this), says this could be some sort of guest / host situation. As in, the woman has come to visit — wandering through the wilderness and passing by a dovecote, as one so often does in the wilderness — and when she gets to Eros’ place, he’s like, “Heeeyyy, Psyche! Come on in! Have this stool. Get comfy!”

With her upraised arm, she could be saying, “Eros, thank god I made it through the insane wilderness where I was nearly pecked to death by half-domesticated doves! I seriously need that stool, and please bring wine.” Or she could be like, “Gah! Get back! Why is this crazy bird-person flying up on me?! I barely made it out of that dove situation alive!”

Who can say.

What I can say is that I love this object. If the Kelsey decided to hold an auction, I would buy this in a hot second. And then I would use it to serve candy hearts. “Will you be my Valentine?” I think this is what Eros is trying to say with his imperfectly painted body and odd, furniture-gifting situation. Let’s hope his lady love, whoever she is, is saying yes.