A Vote for the Ugliest Object is a Vote for Humanity!

I’m not naming any names, but it seems like some people think it’s an ok idea to threaten cultural treasures.

We here at the Kelsey thumb our collective nose at this appalling notion.

All remnants of human history — from awe-inspiring edifices to the cringe-inducing array of weirdos that are our beloved “Ugly Objects” — are worthy of respect and protection.

By casting a vote for your favorite Ugly Object of 2019, you are proclaiming your love of our shared human past. A vote for the Ugliest Object is a vote for humanity!

Make your voice heard! Vote now!

Voting ends on January 15 and the winner will be announced shortly thereafter.

 

Ugly Object of the Month — January 2020

By Suzanne Davis, Curator of Conservation

It’s January, the fresh new month of a brand new year and — in this case — a whole new decade. Official entry into the ’20s mostly makes me want to drink Prohibition-era cocktails, but many people make more healthful resolutions at this time of year. For example, to improve fitness or lose weight. If this is you, maybe you’ve decided to motivate yourself by upgrading some of the items in your gym bag. Enter this month’s Ugly Object, an aryballos, a small oil bottle that was a key item in the ancient Greek athlete’s grooming routine.

small ceramic jug
Ceramic aryballos with traces of pigment. 700–650 BCE, National Museum of Athens, 1933 exchange. KM 10925.

aryballos

After a workout, an athlete used the oil from the flask during bathing. A cord could be passed through the hole in the top of the handle so that the bottle could be carried hanging from the wrist, or hung up at the baths (painted vases from ancient Greece show both scenarios). These little jugs also sit well on a flat surface. The opening in the top is small, too, with a wide neck to help prevent accidental spillage of one’s fancy, perfumed oil.

 

Today this little bottle looks functional but plain, but that’s only because it’s been around for 2,000+ years and has lost some of its pizzazz. Back in the day, it would have been a very snazzy addition to one’s gym kit. The potter used a compass to carefully inscribe the surface with a pattern of small scales, which were then painted red, black, and yellow. Colorful and stylish, this would have been a great item to motivate you to finish your workout.

 

This object is also a favorite of former Kelsey Museum director Sharon Herbert, who wrote a blog entry about it here if you’d like to read more, and you can see it for yourself in the ancient Greece case in our first-floor galleries. Although your plastic shower gel bottle is probably looking pretty sad to you now (sorry), I wish you the best for a happy and healthy new year.

From the Archives #49 — December 2019

By Sebastián Encina, Collections Manager

In December, many of us spend a lot of time at local stores perusing goods that we think would make great gifts for our loved ones. We spend hours trying to find the perfect gift, the item that shows how we think about those we care about, whether they are close to us or far away.

For this month’s “From the Archives,” we go one hundred years back in time, to December 1919, to find a University of Michigan staff member far from home but doing the same thing — going to shops and markets, perhaps to find souvenirs to send back home to Michigan. In 1919 and 1920, U-M photographer George R. Swain accompanied Francis Kelsey on an expedition through Europe and the Mediterranean region. Their goal was to document classical sites as well as to identify sites that might have potential for future excavations.

Here we present seven images taken by Swain in Istanbul — or Constantinople, as it was referred to then (some photo captions refer to the area of “Stamboul”). While traveling, Swain photographed not only archaeological artifacts, sites, and structures, nor did he focus solely on collections at other museums. Almost everywhere he went, Swain turned the camera around to his surroundings, to the people in the area, offering us a glimpse into life in those countries at that time.

The photos shown here cover a time period of 20 days, from 5 December to 24 December 1919. Swain captures life at several shops and businesses in Istanbul. We see a person fixing umbrellas. A cobbler’s shop. A busy corner at the bazaar. Bread and fruit for sale. All the shopping Swain chose to capture.

These photographs allow us to see what the city was like one hundred years ago. People who visit Istanbul now will notice many similarities, but also many differences. The bazaar, though altered, remains. Maybe some of those same shops are still there! And the sentiment is the same. People going about doing their shopping, purchasing items they need, or gifts for friends and family. Now in 2019, we continue doing the same.

Black and white photo of an Istanbul market, 1919
“The umbrella mender sitting on the sidewalk on a typical street.” 5 December 1919. KS043.4.
Black and white photo of an Istanbul market, 1919
“Shop where they pressed the Turkish tabbooses or fezes.” 9 December 1919. (With the passing of the fez, this was a vanished industry by 1927.) KS046.10.
Black and white photo of an Istanbul market, 1919
“A tiny cobbler’s shop by the street in Stamboul.” 9 December 1919. KS046.11.
Black and white photo of an Istanbul market, 1919
“A busy corner near the Egyptian bazaar.” 9 December 1919. KS047.9.
Black and white photo of an Istanbul market, 1919
“Crowd of people by the booths of the Egyptian bazaar.” 9 December 1919. KS047.11.
Black and white photo of an Istanbul market, 1919
“Bread for sale.” 24 December 1919. KS052.7.
Black and white photo of an Istanbul market, 1919
“Scene in a fruit market.” 24 December 1919. KS052.11.

December News from the Conservation Lab — X-Rays and Electron Beams!

By Caroline Roberts, Conservator

As an archaeological conservator I know that, sometimes, you need to travel to where the work is. This was on my mind last month when I found myself flying back and forth across central campus, between our lab at the Kelsey Museum and the Electron Microbeam Analysis Laboratory (or EMAL). EMAL is a shared access research space within the Earth and Environmental Science Department, and it’s home to a range of instruments used for materials analysis.

I had a clear mission: to identify the composition of modern architectural limes and mortars from Sudan. Suzanne acquired the samples during the 2019 El-Kurru field season, with the goal of determining whether they were safe for use in architectural conservation at the two Sudanese archaeological sites where a Kelsey team is working.

I used x-ray diffraction and scanning electron microscopy to identify the unknown materials, processes that involve careful sample preparation, instrument setup, and data interpretation. It was time well spent since we now know that some of these materials contain gypsum, which poses risks to archaeological stone. This kind of information is crucial for informed conservation decision-making in the field, and will help shape architectural treatment and preservation plans for the El-Kurru and Gebel Barkal heritage sites.

A large machine
Samples loaded into the Rigaku x-ray diffractometer.
Woman standing next to and looking into a large machine
Not-so-patiently awaiting XRD results!

Ugly Object of the Month — December 2019

By Caroline Roberts, Conservator

This month’s Ugly Object is a recurring character. I’ll give you some clues: he’s short, bearded, and has prominent ears. He looks a little grumpy, but deep down he’s a really good guy. He’ll go to bat for you in times of need — especially if you’re an expectant mom or a young child.

By now I’m sure you’ve figured out who I’m talking about. He’s the one and only Bes!

terracotta figurine of Bes
Terracotta figurine of Bes. Roman Egypt (Fayum), 1st–2nd century CE. Height: 21.7 cm. Museum purchase (David Askren, 1925). KM 4960.

The terracotta Bes featured this month was pointed out to me in the galleries by Scott Meier, who heads the Kelsey’s exhibition department. Scott knows the collection well, and when I asked him what he thought of this particular Bes he remarked, “It is beautiful in its ugliness.” I couldn’t agree more. Sure, this Bes is missing an ear and a chunk of his feathered crown has popped off, and I dare anyone who isn’t a scholar of Graeco-Roman Egypt to identify the lumpy thing he’s holding in his hands (I checked our database, where it’s described as a club or some sort of instrument). But despite these issues, the object is undeniable in its Bes-ness. Like most Bes figurines, this one faces forward. He looks you straight in the eye as if to say, “Yeah, I’m Bes, and I’m bringing some power to this situation, whatever it might be. So get used to it!” Bes is direct. I like that. He is definitely the sort of deity I would want in my corner.

Come pay Bes a visit at the Kelsey. You’ll find him in our first-floor galleries, across from the Karanis house case.

From the Archives #48 — November 2019

By Sebastián Encina, Collections Manager

November 2019 marks the ten-year anniversary of the opening of the Kelsey Museum’s William E. Upjohn Exhibit Wing. Last month’s “From the Archives” showed the old exhibition spaces of the Kelsey Museum. Though Newberry Hall served the Kelsey well for many years, it was not designed as a museum space. Security, climate control, and space constraints limited what the museum staff could do. Only a few hundred artifacts were ever on display at any time, and the temporary exhibition space was small, allowing for only a few additional artifacts to be brought out. From early on, museum staff knew a new space was needed to make the best of the collections.

When Ed and Mary Meader offered to make this dream possible, the process of imagining the new space and preparing for the eventual opening began. This was a big endeavor for the Kelsey staff, as we had to imagine something from nothing. Where would walls be? What cases would we have? At first, these considerations were just figments of our imagination. We worked closely with University of Michigan architects to plan the new space, eventually hiring an outside firm to design the Upjohn Wing.

For this month’s “From the Archives,” we present a sample of the planning that went into the new building. While we do have the architectural plans of Upjohn (the original designs did not have a second floor, instead offering just a loft), here we show what it takes to plan for the display of an artifact, and how much can change between concept and implementation. In these files, we see the planning that went into how the coffin of  Djheutymose was going to be displayed. For those who remember, Djheutymose was displayed horizontally for many years, on pins above a mirror. In this way, visitors were able to see the top of the coffin while the mirror showed the interior. With the new display, the Kelsey’s curator of Dynastic Egyptian Collections, Janet Richards, wanted Djheutymose to be vertical, making it easier for visitors to see the coffin’s interior decorations.

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In order to make this happen, the entire Kelsey team had to be involved. Janet and other curators lent their vision; the exhibition team, the architect, and the consultant lent their eyes and ideas for design; the conservators assessed the viability of the plans. We looked at examples of coffin displays at other museums, assessing how those coffins were supported and how stable they were. The object list included among these images shows artifacts envisioned for this case that were cut for various reasons. Much changes during the course of an exhibition installation.

This kind of painstaking work happened over and over for all the cases, pedestals, and displays that are now on view in Upjohn. For years, each case was planned in a very similar fashion. Lists were made, visions shared, all of it altered time and again until we settled on the designs seen currently. And after ten years, some have changed and others will continue to change. Be sure to check back often over the next ten years to see how much more changes between now and 2029.

November News from the Conservation Lab — Stone Survey Discoveries!

By Caroline Roberts, Conservator

 The stone condition survey is well underway, and I am just floored by the richness and variety of the Kelsey’s stone collection. We’ve got limestone that is packed full of shell fossils (fig. 1), alabaster that has weathered in a way that it looks like a sea sponge … and, best of all, so much of the material comes from sites that were excavated by the University of Michigan. If I had to choose the most exciting artifacts I’ve encountered so far, it would be those from Karanis, Seleucia, and Terenouthis. I’m a self-professed ancient color geek, and an incredible number of these objects still have pigment preserved.

limestone with fossils
Figure 1. Shell fossils visible along the side of KM 29001, a limestone funerary stela from Terenouthis, Egypt, late 2nd–early 4th century CE.

Take the Karanis stone. I’ve seen hefty jar bases that have traces of pigment and ground still in place, and a libation altar decorated with a vivid orange-red pigment (red lead?) barely visible under a thick layer of burial dirt. At least half of the Seleucia sculptures I’ve examined have traces of pink pigment, including one with a highly detailed painted necklace. I’ve spent years studying the Terenouthis funerary stelae, and even these continue to surprise me. I spotted blue-green pigment on a well-preserved stela that I am eager to investigate further (fig. 2).

carved funerary stela
Figure 2. Limestone funerary stela from Terenouthis, Egypt, late 2nd–early 4th century CE. Traces of green pigment can be seen in the figure’s left hand and on the recliner cushion. KM 21159.

In addition to revealing the extent of surface decoration on the Kelsey’s collection of stone, the survey is also helping me determine which artifacts are in need of treatment or rehousing. It’s amazing to me how much there is to learn from objects in the collection even now, in some cases nearly ninety years after their discovery.

Ugly Object of the Month — October and November 2019

By Caroline Roberts, Conservator

Greetings, Kelsey blog readers! It is officially Decorative Gourd season, and we are so excited about this that we forgot to write an Ugly Object post last month. Oops! We thank you for your patience, and hope that you will enjoy a rare Ugly Object twofer: Egyptian mummy wrappings and amulets! For this special post we wanted to celebrate both Halloween and the day after, All Saints’ Day, by featuring objects that are both spooky and holy. The mummy wrappings and amulets on display in our Egyptian galleries are a perfect fit.

October: In honor of Halloween, we’ve chosen linen mummy bandages that are inscribed with text and images from the Book of the Dead, an ancient funerary text designed to prepare and protect people on their journey after death. The fragment below shows an individual confronted with a series of gates guarded by animal-headed gods, an illustration of what the deceased might encounter as they make their way toward the afterlife.

KM1971.2.278c-web
Linen mummy wrappings depicting the deceased standing before a series of gates guarded by animal-headed gods. 35 x 10 cm. 300–200 BC. Gift of the Bay View Association. KM 71.2.278c.

November: The amulets shown here in honor of All Saints’ Day (which, okay, is Christian, and these are not, but they are magical and holy!) were discovered at Terenouthis in 1935. They would have been tucked between the mummy’s wrappings to protect the individual in the afterlife. We especially love the carnelian heart, which manages to be both creepy and cute.

Amulets-web
Mummy amulets from Terenouthis, Egypt. Left to right: faience Isis amulet (2.3 x 0.6 cm), carnelian heart amulet (1.3 x 0.9 cm), and gold eye of Horus amulet (1.7 x 1.7 cm). Late 2nd–early 4th century AD. KM 24091, 24231, 24135.

By actually wearing these instructions and tokens of protection, the deceased person would have been ensured safe passage to the afterlife. Come see these artifacts at the Kelsey! You’ll find them in the left-hand set of drawers beneath the Terenouthis stelae display in the Egyptian galleries.

From the Archives #47 — October 2019

By Sebastián Encina, Collections Manager

November 2019 marks the ten-year anniversary of the opening of the William E. Upjohn Wing of the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology. This expansion, a generous gift of Ed and Mary Meader, allowed the Kelsey Museum to upgrade our galleries and storage space, and expand what we offer to the museum-going community. With the new wing, the Kelsey was able to display many more artifacts — from a few hundred to well over one thousand.

Newberry Hall, the original home of the Kelsey Museum, housed and displayed our artifacts for over 90 years. Though not originally designed as a museum, the building provided a unique and beautiful space to highlight the Kelsey collections. For this month’s “From the Archives,” we present photographs that show the Newberry galleries before the Upjohn Wing was constructed. In those times, the galleries were split between Egypt and the Near East in one room, and Roman/Etruscan art in the other. Special exhibitions were mounted in the remaining spaces.

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Views over time of Newberry Hall, the North, South, Turret, Hallway, and Classroom Galleries. Dates not known.

 

The primary gallery spaces were housed in what are now the lecture hall and public programs room. The former classroom gallery is now office space for the Kelsey Education staff. The “Turret Gallery” and “Fireplace Gallery” now house the office of the Kelsey’s associate director. Even the hallway had been used to display artifacts. Today, this space displays only prints of photographs from our Archives.

Long-time visitors to the Kelsey will find some of these images familiar, as it was only about 12 years ago that we closed the museum to prepare to move the objects to the new Upjohn Wing. Many of the artifacts seen on display in these photographs are still on display in the current galleries. Others are no longer on view due to various reasons including curatorial decisions and returned loans. 

Though there is a charm to the old displays, we’ve definitely upgraded in many ways. The new galleries provide the objects with proper climate control and improved security. The Newberry served us well for many years, but we are incredibly happy to have Upjohn today.

News from the Conservation Lab — Class is in session!

By Caroline Roberts, Conservator

 I love the start of the academic year, and much of my day-to-day work in the fall is focused on prepping objects for classes. As part of our mission as a teaching and research institution, we offer students a high level of access to the Kelsey collection, and a number of university classes visit the Kelsey each semester. Some of these classes opt in to an object handling session, where students can pick up and examine accessioned artifacts.

teaching-collection
Objects from the Kelsey’s teaching collection on deck for training.

Part of my job is to make sure objects are stable enough for students to handle, and to train new staff and graduate students in how to safely handle objects themselves. I take particular joy in demoing how NOT to do something — nonchalantly waving around a modern kylix from our teaching collection by his broken handle, for example. Another part of my job is to examine and, if needed, treat objects that have been selected for handling by a class. Right now I’m looking at coins for a class focused on visual culture from the ancient Middle East. They are fascinating. Some were minted locally in Syria and Parthia, while others are made from bronze alloys I haven’t encountered before, such as orichalcum. I learn something new each time I look at objects for a new class, and it’s fulfilling to know that the students will, too.

roman coin
Sestertius with laureate and cuirassed bust of Elagabalus (emperor of Rome from 218 to 222), minted in Rome, AD 220. Possibly orichalcum. KM 1991.2.683.