From the Archives — May 2016

BY SEBASTIÁN ENCINA, Museum Collections Manager, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology

In a little less than a month, the Kelsey’s latest exhibition, Leisure & Luxury in the Age of Nero: the Villas of Oplontis Near Pompeii, will, sadly, come down for good. This was the Kelsey’s most grandiose exhibition to date, the culmination of several year’s work and planning. For this exhibit, the Museum borrowed just over 230 artifacts from the ancient villas at Oplontis, many of them out of Italy for the first time ever, only a few ever even exhibited previously. This endeavor was a major undertaking by the Kelsey, spearheaded by curator Elaine Gazda, with the assistance of many staff. Reactions have been overwhelmingly positive and reassuring that our efforts were well worth it.

The exhibition showcases beautiful artwork from Roman times when Vesuvius erupted in AD 79. These were covered in ash for nearly two millennia, awaiting discovery but perfectly preserving spectacular sculptures, frescoes, jewelry, and daily household objects. With this exhibition, Professor Gazda shows the contents from two villas, and what life was like at the time. Come mid-May, the exhibition will begin its journey to two different museums in the US, and with that these beautiful objects will be gone.

But friends of the Kelsey are well aware that once Oplontis leaves the Kelsey, we will still have beautiful artwork from Pompeii on display. The Barosso watercolors, the 1926 replicas of a room at the Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii, are still visible in the Upjohn Exhibit Hall, in their own special room. These watercolors will be with us past the current exhibition, allowing visitors to gaze upon the level of craftsmanship not only of Maria Barosso, but of the original Roman artists as well. This space is a highlight of the collections, a must see for any visit to the Kelsey.

What some of our newer friends will not know is that the watercolors were not always on display in such a space. In fact, the artwork was rolled up and put away in storage for the majority of its life. In 1926, Maria Barosso painted these at the behest of Franics Kelsey. They were soon put on display in Italy under the auspices of Benito Mussolini, then rolled and shipped to Michigan, where they lay dormant for over 70 years. Throughout its history, before the construction of the Upjohn Exhibit Hall and its opening in 2009, the Kelsey simply did not have the space to properly display these paintings. They were too large to display in the spaces of Newberry, and the building did not have the proper climate control and lighting to safely exhibit them. Instead, they were kept in a locked cabinet in collections storage where they teased potential use in an unknown future.

This month’s “From the Archives” reminds some of our longtime friends, and brings to light for our newer friends, an endeavor to have these out for view. In 2000, Professor Gazda curated the exhibition The Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii: Ancient Ritual, Modern Muse. This was the Kelsey’s first successful attempt at having the watercolors out and visible, not just locked where no one could see them. However, even then the Kelsey was not able to show all the panels as they should be viewed. The temporary exhibition space, where the current gift shop is now located, was simply not large enough for all the panels. In order to do this, the Kelsey had to partner with the Museum of Art. This exhibition was a multi-venue show, with part on view at the Kelsey, including some complementary artifacts and the full-size mirror group panel, and the complete room on view at the Museum of Art.

The Kelsey archives do not only contain the history of the archaeological excavations and forays into Europe by Kelsey and Swain and friends, but we also maintain the history of the Museum into modern times. Every exhibition we have put on is carefully recorded, making it possible for us to learn from our past, see what we have done, how it was done. It is humbling to see where the Kelsey was just 16 years ago, and the limits we had to face. Despite these limitations, however, the staff and curators were able to overcome and do the best we could with the resources we had. Back then, we had no idea a space such as Upjohn would be coming to us, we could only hope.

The files in the exhibition archives contain old posters, flyers, photos, even layout designs. These are a few of the examples we present this month. And it acts as a reminder that even though Oplontis will soon be going away, we still have the beautiful Barosso watercolors to enjoy for many years to come.

Installing Oplontis

BY CAROLINE ROBERTS, Conservator, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology

For the past four weeks it has been all hands on deck at the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology. Indeed, it has taken the entire Kelsey village – curators, registrars, conservators, educators, and exhibit coordinators – to bring Oplontis to life.

The first step in installing Oplontis was to receive the objects. Over 30 crates of artifacts arrived from Italy nearly five weeks ago. Kelsey collections managers were at the Museum (very) early in the morning to oversee the movement of the crates from truck to loading dock to gallery. The crates were allowed to adjust to the climate of the Kelsey galleries for about a day before being opened.

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The Nike sculpture travels from the first to the second floor galleries

 

Our next step was to unpack and install the artifacts. We did this with the help of two couriers, Giuseppe Zolfo, Head of Conservation at Herculaneum, and Stefania Giudice, Conservator at Pompeii. Giuseppe and Stefania checked the condition of artifacts as they were unpacked and helped install them in cases, on stands, and on top of columns. Both Giuseppe and Stefania have traveled to numerous museums around the world to assist with the installation of artifacts from the Pompeii area, and we’re grateful for their help in installing the Oplontis artifacts and sculpture.

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Stefania Giudice examines a wall painting fragment

 

The wall painting fragments that appear suspended on the gallery walls took many days to install, their positions needing to align with their reconstructed backgrounds. The coins and jewelry in the Villa B area were expertly mounted by Stefania and Giuseppe using covered pins and shaped metal rods. You may wonder how we moved the massive strong box onto its base. The box is too fragile to lift manually, but it is set on wheels, which allowed us to roll it from its crate onto the base with the help of a wooden block. We installed the large sculptures with the help of a company specializing in the movement and installation of works of art.

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Giuseppe and Scott install wall painting fragments

 

Our final steps will be to install the lighting and text before the exhibition opens. This is by far the largest installation I have been a part of, and it has been a fantastic learning opportunity. Among other things, I feel much more adept at using a drill.

Keeping our heads on straight: custom mount design for Oplontis garden sculpture

BY CAROLINE ROBERTS, Conservator, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology

Over two hundred artifacts and sculptures are traveling from Italy to Ann Arbor for the upcoming exhibition Leisure and Luxury in the Age of Nero, opening in February. Among them are three marble heads that once stood in the north garden of Villa A at Oplontis. The heads will be displayed in the Kelsey’s temporary exhibition space as they once were in the garden: atop tall, narrow plinths. Sculpture like this might normally be held in place with a metal pin inserted into a hole in the base of the neck. These heads, however, lack such an accommodation, which meant that exhibition coordinator Scott Meier and I needed to come up with another way to secure the heads to their exhibit mounts.

Scott’s idea is to create a two-part mount custom fit to each head’s neck base. The mount will essentially serve as a clamp, immobilizing the head and preventing it from tipping off the plinth if it is accidentally bumped. In order to create such a mount we needed a cast of each sculpture’s neck. Scott and I were able to do this in person in June 2015, when we traveled to Oplontis with curator Elaine Gazda. First, I covered the ancient marble surface with a temporary layer of Parafilm® M, a stretchable plastic film, in order to protect the stone from any staining that might be caused by the mold-taking material.

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Carrie applies protective Parafilm® M to the base of each neck.

For the mold-taking material we used silicone rubber putty, which Scott applied in a thick layer to the surface.

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Scott creates a mold of the neck using silicone rubber.

The putty cured overnight, leaving us with three hollow, rubber neck molds — which we dubbed the “blue brains” because, well … that’s what they look like.

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Carrie and Scott pour plaster of Paris into the molds.

These “brains” eventually served as receptacles for plaster, which we used to create duplicates of the neck bases.

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Plaster duplicate of one of the three neck bases.

The duplicates are being used to cast the two-part mounts in epoxy resin. Once it’s cured, the epoxy will fit perfectly around the bases of the necks and hold the heads in place with the help of metal brackets. You won’t be able to see the custom-fit mounts when the heads are on display, but you will be able to appreciate the many steps that took place in order to recreate the sculptures’ original plinth presentation. See the marble heads and more in Leisure and Luxury next month at the Kelsey!