From the Archives — March 2017

BY SEBASTIÁN ENCINA, Museum Collections Manager

The archives at the Kelsey Museum are a treasure trove of valuable information, but it also acts as a memory holder. People who have contributed to the archives routinely return to find something they had forgotten long ago, only to find it within the Museum. Often it is a memory jolt, reminiscence, or a search for something to include in a report or study. The great thing about making the archives available, and fielding these requests, is not only the ability to support research on whatever level, but those requests often lead to conversations. Those conversations start revealing bits of history that are not apparent in the archives. Names of people. Stories about them. What it meant to live with a team in that time under those conditions in that place.

This month’s “From the Archives” focuses on this find from the Qasr al-Hayr archives. A simple request a few days ago paved the way to look for these memories. Often the act of searching for one item leads to the finding of so many more. Here we see a bit of that. We see team members as they were in 1964, going about their business, living their lives. There was no thought about an unknown archivist looking at these same photos 43 years later. Or that these would be shared widely. Instead, the photographs of the architecture, landscapes, and finds, are what normally make it into the public eye through publications.

One of the most humbling aspects of working in archives is this reminder of how time passes. Our own photographs may some day be viewed in the same manner. We take photographs and save documents in order to remind ourselves years from now, but these items have a longer shelf life. Though names may be lost, their presence is still with us. And so, too, will our presence live on.

 

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Artifact investigation

CAROLINE ROBERTS, Conservator

I love a good mystery, and nothing (save a really good crime novel) is better than an artifact mystery. I love the thrill of investigating an object, identifying its agents of deterioration, and nabbing those culprits one by one. I also really enjoy teaching new conservators how to use investigative tools to make their own observations. I recently spent a day looking at an object with Ellen Seidell, a U of M junior who is interning in our lab. The ceramic bowl — excavated at Karanis in 1929 — was covered with feathery white crystals, as well as a drippy, peeling surface coating. I had my suspicions as to what these were, but wanted Ellen to learn for herself how to identify unknown materials.

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Left: Ceramic bowl before treatment. Right: bowl under longwave ultraviolet light.

To do this, we examined the bowl under longwave ultraviolet light. This is a useful tool not only for crime-scene investigation, but also for identifying varnishes and coatings. Ellen and I could immediately see a bright yellow luminescence on the surface. We then performed a chemical test to determine that the coating was cellulose nitrate — a material used to treat newly excavated artifacts in the 1920s and ’30s. Finally, we determined that the white crystals were salts. Water-soluble salts like these can be absorbed into artifacts during burial. Fluctuations in humidity can cause salts to crystallize and re-crystallize inside the object, which can cause damage to artifact surfaces.

So what did we do with this evidence? First, we decided to remove the salts. I felt that this would be a good experience for Ellen, since not all salty bowls have the advantage of being in a climate-controlled museum, and since monitored desalination is an important conservation skill. Next we addressed the coating, whose identity allowed us to choose an appropriate solvent for its removal — which Ellen did herself. The treatment is complete, bringing the case of the salty, peeling bowl to a close (for now).

From the Archives — March 2017

BY SEBASTIÁN ENCINA, Museum Collections Manager

The name George R. Swain is one that is familiar to many in the Kelsey community. His photographs dominate the archives, and they make the bulk of those from excavations such as Karanis. He was also instrumental in the photography of collections from overseas, and capturing people in the countries he visited. Through his lens, we see life as it was in Egypt and Turkey/Syria in the 1910s and 1920s.

Swain’s is not the only name that played an important role in the history of Kelsey photography, though. Starting in the 1950s, Fred Anderegg worked with the Museum on a number of excavations, including the project at St. Catherine’s on the Sinai Peninsula. In the following years, Mr. Anderegg spent time photographing the Kelsey artifacts in order to document them. What ensued was thousands of photographs, all done in black-and-white on 35mm rolls. Thanks to Fred, the Kelsey now has thousands upon thousands of these 35mm images cut up into strips, organized by year they were photographed, the roll number within that year, and frame within roll. Each 35mm strip envelope includes a key for which artifact was photographed, and which frame it can be found in.

Many of these photographs were then contact printed, where a similar size print was made in the positive. These were adhered to the accession cards that acted as the database before computers became such an integral part of our daily work.

Over the years, the Registry has worked to digitize some of these when we needed good, quality photographs of our collections. However, with tens of thousands of these strips waiting to be digitized, it has been a daunting task, to say the least. A few have been digitized as needed, but only a handful and quite sporadically.

Recently, the Kelsey Museum partnered with the History of Art’s Visual Resources Collection (VRC) to pilot test a project where these photographs will be digitized en masse, with the proper metadata and filenames attached to each file. This will save the Kelsey many person-hours, and will allow for a greater inclusion of photographs in our database and for other uses. Though they are still in black-and-white, they provide great photographs where we can easily distinguish each item from another. These are used for publications, but also serve as record shots of our collection.

The entire process will take some time to complete, if it does go forward (we started with about 100 rolls to test out and see if we can continue it). However, it is a much quicker process than what we could do internally, and will result in higher-quality scans. In due time, these will be available to Kelsey staff, as well as researchers and students looking to get a glimpse of items often kept hidden out of view.

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Ugly Object of the Month — March 2017

BY CAROLINE ROBERTS, Conservator

Are any of you readers out there a Girl Scout? I was a Girl Scout, and I’ve still got my sash hanging in a closet somewhere, covered with a pretty decent number of badges. For those who are unaware, a Girl Scout earns a badge when they learn a new skill or visit a cool place (like a museum). The most memorable badge experience I had was learning how to safely use a pocket knife. Although not quite as compact as today’s modern, Scout-wielded pocket knives, this month’s Ugly Object reminds me of all that is good about a micro tool kit. You’ve got your rings (in this case iron and two smaller bronze rings), attached to which are various picks and what looks like a pair of tweezers. I mean, what self-respecting Scout (or ancient person) would ever journey into the splinter-infested wilderness without tweezers? We’re pretty sure that this set was used for medical purposes, and I can just picture something like this hanging from someone’s belt alongside keys and a wallet chain (ok, maybe not the wallet chain). Whoever it was that possessed this handy tool kit had the right idea: always be prepared.

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Bronze and iron tool kit. KM 1485a–g.

You can catch a glimpse of this ugly but handy artifact in The Art and Science of Healing: From Antiquity to the Renaissance until April 30, and after that you can find it in the healing and beauty case in the 2nd floor galleries.