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Cultural Collections

New Kelsey Museum exhibition highlights beauty, importance of failure

By Sydney Hawkins

U-M Men's Glee Club performs "Seven Last Words of the Unarmed"

ANN ARBOR—As an archaeologist, U-M professor Carla Sinopoli has long been interested in the study of craft production—both the technologies and the social and political dimensions of the making of objects of everyday life.

Though her research has primarily focused on ceramics in Asia, she has also studied a range of other crafts while doing fieldwork in Southern India, including textile production, metallurgy, stone-working, sculpting, and even performance.

“Archaeologists most often recover finished products of craft producers—albeit often in fragments,” Sinopoli said. “Some of my most exciting discoveries have been of objects that failed in production—stone carvings that cracked and broke before completion, ceramic vessels that warped in the kiln and were never used.”

She says that failures of past civilizations give researchers insight into production processes and standards, and ancient technologies and traditions.

Sinopoli explores these ideas as curator of “Less Than Perfect,” a new exhibition now on view at the University of Michigan’s Kelsey Museum of Archaeology. Spanning more than 2,000 years and four continents, each of the featured objects celebrate failure and the lessons it teaches.

Navajo weaving, artist unknown, wool on cotton warp, Arizona c. 1970, Warner Collection; University of Michigan Museum of Anthropological Archeology

Along the borders of many Navajo weavings is a single line of a contrasting color extending out from the center to the textile’s edge. This line is called ch’ihónít’i, which is translated into English as “spirit line.” It allows part of the weaver’s spirit to exit, safely separating her from her weaving and from any harmful thoughts that may come into contact with it. (Navajo weaving, artist unknown, wool on cotton warp, Arizona c. 1970, Warner Collection; University of Michigan Museum of Anthropological Archeology).

The exhibition features objects from three different cultural collections at U-M, including the Kelsey Museum, Museum of Art and Museum of Anthropological Archaeology, and is organized around three themes.

The first theme, “Failed Perfection,” presents archaeological objects that failed during production in order to explore how researchers use them to study ancient technologies.

The second, “Deliberate Imperfection,” features beautiful and finely crafted objects whose makers intentionally introduced asymmetries or other imperfections into their products—and considers why artists choose to make imperfect things.

“Restoring Perfection” highlights artifacts that were repaired in antiquity by people who strove to restore usefulness and beauty to broken or damaged objects.

“I particularly enjoy this exhibition because it starts an important conversation with our students,” Sinopoli said. “We often forget about the important role that failure plays in our successes—it’s an integral part of growing and learning.”

“Less Than Perfect” is on view at the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology until Jan. 8, 2017.

Related exhibition events:

  • General exhibition tours will take place 2-3 p.m. Sept. 24, and a curator-led tour will take place 2-3 p.m. Dec. 4.
  • Amateur Poetry Slam: 7 p.m. Oct. 19 at the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology
  • Failure:Lab: 5:30 p.m. Nov. 3 at the U-M Museum of Art



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