March’s news from the Conservation Lab: Reconstructing color on a Roman marble head

Caroline Roberts, Conservator

This month I’ve been getting to know Bacchus (Dionysos to the Greeks), a Kelsey Museum favorite normally on display outside the Villa of the Mysteries room. Bacchus’s head dates from the early to mid-second century AD. It is made of carved white marble and was once part of a larger standing figure which would have been pretty impressive given how great its noggin is! I’m examining the head because, believe it or not, there are traces of color on it. There is an abundance of red in the hair that is visible to the naked eye, but there are also traces of red in less noticeable areas. Using a Dinolite digital microscope I’ve spotted tiny deposits of red pigment in the tear ducts of Bacchus’s eyes and at the corner of his mouth. Using an imaging technique called visible induced infrared luminescence (or VIL), I’ve also found traces of Egyptian blue on the leaves of the god’s ivy wreath. This could mean that the wreath was painted blue, or perhaps green if the blue was mixed with yellow.

Bacchus will return to display in the Roman galleries this summer and will be featured in the upcoming exhibition Ancient Color, opening February 8, 2019. Visitors to the exhibition will get a chance to see Bacchus’s colorful hair through digital color reconstructions that will illustrate how he might have appeared in antiquity, based on material evidence.

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Marble head of Bacchus, early to mid-2nd c. AD. Height: 32.5 cm. Joint purchase of the University of Michigan Museum of Art and the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, 1974. KM 1974.4.1.
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Left: visible light image, proper left side; right, VIL image showing Egyptian blue under a leaf on Bacchus’s ivy wreath (the whitish spots in the middle of the image).

Ugly Object of the Month — November 2017

BY SUZANNE DAVIS and CARRIE ROBERTS, Conservators

In a world that’s constantly changing, where nothing feels secure and each day brings fresh disappointment, there is one thing you can always count on: ugly objects. These special creatures, who have survived for centuries, if not millennia, continue to delight us with their ill-favored appearances and sheer indifference to political events and world news.

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Fragment of a dolphin. Roman, 32 x 22 x 16 cm. KM 3050.

 

This month’s featured object is a prime example. This grotty bit of dolphin has taken a pickaxe blow or three to the head, sadly. Once part of a fountain, hundreds of years of gushing water have eroded his snout. His pectoral fins are mere nubs, and crusty bits of accretion cling to his cheek and sides. The dorsal fin has been reduced to a sad lump. And yet, this dolphin not only survives but retains his quintessential dolphinness, charming us with his bulbous forehead, squinty eyes, funky nostril, and torpedo-shaped body. Come see this fantastic aquatic mammal for yourself; it’s on view on the second floor of the Upjohn Exhibit Wing.

From the Archives

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

It is February, and Love is in the air. Though it is cold in Michigan, we can think about those warmer places around the world where they are enjoying more temperate weather and no snow. A location like southern Italy would be a nice place to get away just about now, where you can wear shorts and t-shirts and not worry about frostbite.

Unfortunately for many of us, our responsibilities keep us in Michigan, and we cannot fly off to Europe on a moment’s notice. Fortunately for us, Italy is now here in Michigan, for Kelsey visitors to enjoy. This month marks the opening of Leisure and Luxury in the Age of Nero: The Villas of Oplontis near Pompeii, our latest exhibition, curated by Dr. Elaine Gazda. With this exhibition, over 225 objects from Oplontis have been brought to the United States for a special showing, including fresco fragments, coinage, glass, bronze, and ceramic vessels, as well as sculptures of marble. Among those marble sculptures are Venus, Diana, a male and female centaur, two Hercules herms, and the stunning Nike landing softly on the ground. The exhibition runs through May, so be sure to stop by for a view of this magnificent show.

Oplontis brings the vision of Francis Kelsey to Michigan. Kelsey was a strong advocate of teaching with collections, giving students the opportunity to see, firsthand, the materials which they read in their Latin and Greek books. It was this push that started the collections that would one day be the Kelsey Museum. Materials purchased in Italy, or in Tunisia, or Greece, were collected for education purposes, and eventually found a new home in Ann Arbor.

Kelsey could not bring everything back, however. Many of the artifacts art historians study have permanent homes in their places of origin, and due to size, finances, and other constraints, they cannot travel outside of their country. And in the early 1900s, there was no Kelsey Museum where such materials could be stored and displayed. Instead, Kelsey did as many art historians do, which is to photograph museum collections with the aid of George Swain. And before Swain worked for the University, Kelsey purchased postcards on sale in, say, Italy that depicted the same works of art students were learning about.

For this month’s From the Archives, we present a few of these postcards. Shown here are two sculptures in Naples, a Diana and a Venus. Kelsey would use these postcards to teach, demonstrating the art of sculpture in the Roman world, much like Dr. Gazda does with her students today. Images such as these would be routinely sold to tourists, as not everyone had a camera then (the original Kodak was introduced just a few years prior, but was still not something everyone carried with them). Kelsey returned with these and in 1906 the General Library took them, and perhaps later the Latin Department acquired the set. Eventually they made their way to the Kelsey Museum, where they now reside in the Archives.

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Along with the postcards themselves, we also have the original dividers Kelsey used to organize them. Run through the stacks and you will find a section on portraits, Cupid, Cupid and Psyche, Psyche, Diana, Artemis (“see Diana”), Laocoon, and many others. The interesting aspect for the archivist and historian is that these cards’ titles are in Kelsey’s handwriting. Knowing this, we can begin identifying other cards and letters and journals in the archives as Kelsey’s. Kelsey was a meticulous man, taking much time out of his day to organize materials, jot them in a journal, write letters, have meetings, dine, see a show, and still write an entry in his daily diary.

The same organization manner Kelsey used has not been changed. Other than the container where the postcards are now stored, all remains as Kelsey left it. There is the archival philosophy of respect des fonds, that we should not change the organization method of the original material, but we also have no need to right Kelsey’s original work.
These postcards showing materials from Naples, near Oplontis, were collected for teaching, and now we are able to bring actual objects from the same region straight to Ann Arbor. Dr. Gazda will use these objects for her classes, but already there is interest from a number of other professors who want to use the exhibition in their own classes. In this way, Kelsey’s original mission has been fulfilled.

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!