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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
BY SEBASTIÁN 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
For the mold-taking material we used silicone rubber putty, which Scott applied in a thick layer to the surface.
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.
These “brains” eventually served as receptacles for plaster, which we used to create duplicates of the 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!