In 1991, 158 ancient buttons, once owned by former Michigan student Jane Ford Adams, were accessioned by the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology at the University of Michigan. Unbeknownst to Adams, an avid button collector—or to her husband, who arranged the gift—these “buttons” were in fact late prehistoric stamp seals, many of which had been excavated at Tepe Giyan (in present-day Iran) and published in Archaeologische Mitteilungen aus Iran by Ernst E. Herzfeld (1933). Fourteen years later, working with the dealer Edward Gans, Herzfeld put the corpus on the market; the lot for sale graced the cover of Just Buttons magazine in May 1947. In reclassifying these objects, Herzfeld and Gans profited from the peak popularity of button collecting, surmising that a cache of stamp seals would have far less appeal. Lost to the scholarly community for decades, the Adams seals are now a focus on ongoing research and have taken their place among the most-valued Near Eastern objects at the Kelsey Museum.
This amusing and thought-provoking narrative encapsulates both the particular achievement of Passionate Curiosities and the unique pleasure afforded by reading it (105-109). Talalay and Root address a diverse audience of students, scholars, museum staff and volunteers, as well as visitors, casual and loyal. Passionate Curiosities finds its place alongside a range of other recent publications that illuminate the historiography of the Kelsey, and provides an essential reference on the history of collecting at this important university museum.1
The volume, which accompanied a 2015 exhibition, consists of eight chapters, each of which is self-contained and could be read individually with profit.2 An introduction offers the authors’ rationale for their book and communicates to those readers who have not been to the Kelsey Museum a sense of the visitor experience. A chapter situating developments at the Kelsey within the broader context of the history of American museums is followed by another that specifically addresses Francis W. Kelsey’s role in the formation of the collection. Kelsey, a professor of Latin language and literature at the University of Michigan, was the brains as well as the muscle behind the creation of a world-class university museum in Ann Arbor. His contributions spanned fundraising, acquisitions, and the organization of excavations (such as those at Karanis, Egypt) that greatly enriched the collection. The fourth chapter chronicles the series of relevant University excavations. Here, the authors devote special attention to the role of partage (the division of ownership of excavated finds between a source country and foreign excavators). Chapter five returns to Kelsey’s tenure, noting acquisitions of individual collections, while chapter six lists those objects and holdings acquired after the professor’s death. The subsequent chapter takes an object-based approach, treating in turn several of the major media, including textiles, coins, glass, photography, and prints. Chapter eight raises broader questions about the ethics of collecting antiquities. Lastly, an appendix provides potted histories of antiquities legislation in Greece, Egypt, Tunisia, Iran, Iraq, Italy, Turkey, and the Levant.
The authors relish the anecdotal and present the findings of their exhaustive research as a linked chain of swashbuckling tales and other narratives that, through vivid detail, at times shade towards the ghoulish or unsettling. The tone is intimate and inclusionary, evoking a behind-the-scenes tour with a museum curator. The reader has the sense of dipping into these stories, which do not build on one another, but rather function as independent accounts, grouped according to the broader chapter themes. This manner of organization points to the genesis of the project as an internal collections account (vii). Indeed, the book’s layout and structure nicely capture experiential aspects of museum-based research. Most notably, the copious, beautiful archival illustrations (such as a photo of Kelsey’s copy of Baedeker’s guide to Egypt and the Sudan [fig. 3.7] or the Egyptian dealer Maurice Nahman’s letterhead on a note to Kelsey [fig. 8.7]) provide a window onto the types of documents curators and other scholars regularly encounter while conducting provenance research. Such a loosely-knit organization can make for a disjointed reading experience. Yet, on balance, this quality is a strength. A neat, overarching narrative would do no justice to the idiosyncratic manner in which disparate collections of objects entered the Museum.
Passionate Curiosities appears at a moment of heightened interest in the series of stops a museum object makes over the course of its “life”—from the moment of creation to its eventual landing in a display case (7). In recent decades, broader trends in art history have embraced issues of reception, including the biographies of things.3 At the same time, as institutions housing ancient objects have increasingly faced scrutiny, and even legal action, from source countries interested in reclaiming illegally exported antiquities, curators and other members of museums’ staff have made provenance research central to their scholarly missions. Talalay and Root provide ample illustration of the fraught histories researchers often uncover when undertaking precisely this kind of work. Horton O’Neil, for example, a student volunteer on a Michigan-sponsored archaeological project in Carthage, was an “immature young man who misjudged the seriousness of the project.” O’Neil clandestinely excavated artifacts and bribed customs officials in Tunis to allow his luggage, full of ill-gotten finds, to pass uninspected (32). The legacy of these early collecting and excavation practices, by contemporary ethical standards egregiously destructive and exploitative, looms large in virtually every museum with antiquities. Talalay and Root are to be commended for their frankness and fairness when distinguishing nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century attitudes and methods from the international guidelines now in place.
In many ways, Passionate Curiosities is a study of how late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century collecting practices intersected with the development of museums and universities. Though Professor Kelsey looms especially large throughout the book, we also encounter a spectrum of colorful personalities involved in excavation, acquisition, and study. The collector and lecturer Samuel A. Goudsmit (also a renowned physicist), for example, became enamored with ancient Egypt when fellow physics graduate students in his discussion group informed him that his lectures on atoms were simply too boring (93-97). The life of Leroy Waterman, a biblical scholar who acquired Mesopotamian art during his stays in the region before World War II (97-102), provides a lens for consideration of the development of Ancient Near Eastern and Egyptian archaeology alongside increased interest in Biblical and Holy Land Studies.4
Talalay and Root also shed light on the roles of women in forming archaeological collections at the turn of the century: Harriet (Hattie) Conner, an otherwise unknown missionary based in Egypt who donated to the “Bay View Collection,” appears in the correspondence of influential archaeologists like Charles E. Wilbour (84-87); Esther Boise van Deman, a scholar who trained under Kelsey, is singled out for her trailblazing work in Rome from 1901 until her death there in 1937 (77-79). The authors also delve into the biographies of the dealers instrumental in the formation of the collection, notably Aziz Khayat, Maurice Nahman, and Phocion and Nicolas Tano, many of whom encountered religious and racial prejudices (158-167).5
A general history of university museums and study collections in the Western hemisphere, many of which developed alongside major municipal institutions, remains a desideratum in the field of museum studies. Talalay and Root, while lamenting this gap (11-13), devote little space to consideration of the Kelsey’s relationship to its peer institutions. The final chapter on ethical issues facing museums, for example, is not specifically tailored to university museums or study collections, instead narrating the notorious case of the “Euphronios krater,” repatriated to Italy by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2008. Undoubtedly, however, the careful research and thoughtful analyses contained within Passionate Curiosities will influence subsequent discussions of the ethics of university excavations and the resulting partage of finds.
1. Publications of the last ten years include Talalay, Lauren E. and Susan E. Alcock (2006) In the Field: The Archaeological Expeditions of the Kelsey Museum. Ann Arbor: Kelsey Museum of Archaeology; Pedley, John Griffiths (2012) The Life and Work of Francis Willey Kelsey: Archaeology, Antiquity, and the Arts. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press; Wilfong, T. G., ed. and contr. with Andrew W. S. Ferrara (2014) Karanis Revealed: Discovering the Past and Present of a Michigan Excavation in Egypt. Ann Arbor: Kelsey Museum of Archaeology.
4. On attitudes towards material and archaeological evidence within the field of Biblical studies in the nineteenth century, see Soskice, Janet (2009) Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Found the Hidden Gospels. London: Chatto & Windus.
5. For recent work on such figures, as well as on the attitudes and actions of communities in source countries, see Colla, Elliott (2008) Conflicted Antiquities: Egyptology, Egyptomania, Egyptian Modernity.Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press; Reid, Donald Malcolm (2002) Whose Pharaohs? Archaeology, Museums, and Egyptian National Identity from Napoleon to World War I. Berkeley; Los Angeles: University of California Press.