Most of the students and faculty have vacated Ann Arbor for the summer break, but it’s always busy here in the Kelsey’s conservation lab! This month we’re hard at work on all kinds of things.
My main work this month is to finish a book and an exhibition with my colleague Geoff Emberling. Focused on ancient graffiti at the site where we work in Sudan (El-Kurru), these projects have been fun. We’ve learned a lot by working on the book, and the exhibition has been an interesting exercise in how to share the story of El-Kurru and its graffiti with people who will probably never travel there.
Many exhibitions can display objects from a far-away archaeological site to tell a story, but in our case, we can’t transport the El-Kurru pyramid and funerary temple to Ann Arbor (although we can try to fake it). So it’s been a big challenge not only for us but for Scott Meier and Eric Campbell, our Kelsey colleagues who are responsible for the exhibition design, installation, and graphics.
June’s Ugly Object is a stela from Terenouthis, a Roman Egyptian city whose necropolis was excavated by the University in the mid-1930s. This might be a somewhat controversial pick for our blog roll, seeing as the stela is, in its way, actually quite beautiful. Finley Hooper, author of a catalog of stelae from Terenouthis, Funerary Stelae from Kom Abou Billou (Ann Arbor: Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, 1961), calls it “one of the most pleasing in the entire group” of stelae discovered at the site. These are high marks given that more than two hundred of these objects exist!
I’ve looked at quite a few of these grave markers myself, and I’d have to agree that this one is special. The man and his architectural surrounds are carefully carved, as are the attending Anubis figures. There is a lot of pigment left on the surface, and the details captured in paint are quite interesting. There are flesh tones, a variety of surface details on the columns, and a fringed shroud that hangs over the figure’s upraised arms. Hooper’s translation of the stela’s Greek inscription gives the name of the deceased (Nemesion) his age (about 24 years old) and his date of death (Hathur 6). Elements of Greek, Roman, and Egyptian religious practice converge in this stela, making it an important object of Roman Egyptian material culture. At the same time, it remains a very personal token of remembrance that makes me think about who this young man was and what life was like for him.
This stela will be on display in the Kelsey’s temporary exhibit space as part of Ancient Color’s extended run through July 28. Come and see it for yourself!
Each May, the College of Literature, Sciences, and the Arts (LSA) at the University of Michigan treats its staff to Spring Fling, an opportunity to celebrate the end of the academic year. This festivity is the college’s thank you to all who contributed to another successful year for the students within the college. Various departments come together to be treated to lunch and be thanked by the Dean’s office.
Every year, LSA selects a theme for Spring Fling. This past May (23 May 2019), the theme was “Out of This World” and staff were encouraged to dress in “space-inspired attire.” The Kelsey Museum decided to participate by dressing as the Greek/Roman gods who represent the various planets and moons. At the time of writing, a vote is underway to select the best-dressed department at Spring Fling 2019. We think we have it in the bag.
This image is reminiscent of a photograph from 2008 when members of the Kelsey staff also dressed in Roman attire for Spring Fling. For this month’s “From the Archives,” we present this earlier photo, in which we were not dressed as gods, but as Roman citizens. Unfortunately, the attire did not match the theme of that year’s Spring Fling, but it was still fun to dress up.
Pay particular attention to Alex Zwinak (2019) and Sebastián Encina (2008). Both are wearing Roman armor that is housed at the Kelsey (not accessioned). The armor is actual metal and is very heavy and quite unwieldy, but it is attention-getting and a fun opportunity to dress like a Roman soldier (or Mars, the Roman god of war …).
Maybe in 2030, a future Kelsey staff member will wear this same armor for Spring Fling.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.