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Excavating the Future

By Maryanne George

A behind-the-scenes look at the installation of the "Leisure and Luxury" exhibit, which showcases artifacts from a villa that may have belonged to one of Nero's wives. The time frame is about 50 BC to 79 AD, from the era of Julius Caesar through the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius.

College of Literature, Science, and the Arts

As an undergrad in the 1930s, Edwin Meader saw rare artifacts, pottery and sculpture, excavated by U-M scholars in the Mediterranean and Near East, being delivered to what was then called the Museum of Classical Archaeology (later the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology) and said to himself “these things deserve a better place.”

In 2003, a gift of $8.5 million from the late Edwin and Mary Meader created that better place, funding construction of a new 20,000 square-foot wing. Named in honor of Mary’s grandfather, the William E. Upjohn Exhibit Wing opens Sunday, November 1.

Located on Maynard Street behind the turreted stone building at 434 S. State Street, the new wing provides study, storage, and display space in a climate-controlled facility that now houses all of the Kelsey collections.

Named in honor of U-M Professor Francis Kelsey in the 1950s, the museum has world-renown collections of more than 100,000 ancient artifacts, some originally purchased by Kelsey in the 1890s. Based on excavated materials from Egypt, Turkey, and the Near East in the 1920s – 1930s, they provide an extraordinary glimpse of everyday life in the ancient Mediterranean. The collections include artwork, toys, funerary offerings, sculpture, fragments of paintings, pottery and jewelry.

“Professor Kelsey was a man ahead of his time,” said Sharon Herbert, director of the Kelsey and the John G. Pedley Collegiate Professor of Classical Archaeology. “He understood the power of objects to connect today’s people with people of the past.”

The Upjohn Wing allows more of the museum’s collection – stored for decades because of a lack of display space — to be shown to the public. New displays highlight interconnections among cultures and peoples of the ancient Near East, Egypt, and the world of the Greeks, Etruscans, and Romans.

Themes running throughout the installation include political and divine power, death and the hereafter, work and leisure, commerce and entertainment, social hierarchies and rituals, and health and beauty.

“People have no idea what we have here,’’ said Elaine Gazda, curator of Hellenistic and Roman antiquities at the Kelsey and a professor of classical art and archaeology. “People will be stunned by the richness and depth of collections.”

Among the most stunning pieces on display are watercolor replicas of the Villa of the Mysteries of Pompeii. In the mid 1920s Kelsey commissioned Italian artist Maria Barosso to paint reproductions of the vivid frescoes on the walls of a reception room in a villa. Buried in an eruption of Mount Vesuvius near Naples in 79 A.D., the villa was found during an excavation in 1909. Except for a few exhibitions, the watercolors have been in storage since they arrived in Ann Arbor in 1928.  In the Upjohn wing they are displayed on the walls of a space resembling the original reception room.

The new space will also allow the Kelsey to expand their innovative educational programs, including the museum’s “Civilizations in a Crate,” series of traveling educational kits for the public, Family Days at the Museum, and docent-led tours.

The Meaders, of Kalamazoo, were world travelers whose visits to archaeological sites and museums inspired their gift to the Kelsey Museum.

In her 20s, Mary became an aviator, taking aerial photographs over Africa and South America from a small unpressurized monoplane. Her fly-over of Africa in the late 1930s produced the earliest aerial photographs of the continent and images of the Giza Pyramids. Some of her photos are on display in the special exhibition gallery of the Upjohn wing named for the Meaders.

An Army Intelligence officer during World War II, Edwin traveled to Africa and Egypt where he visited the Graeco-Roman site of Karanis in northern Egypt, excavated by U-M scholars in the 1920s and ‘30s. That visit sparked an enduring interest in archaeology.