BY SEBASTIAN ENCINA, Museum Collections Manager, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology
In a little less than a month, the Kelsey’s latest exhibition, Leisure & Luxury in the Age of Nero: the Villas of Oplontis Near Pompeii, will, sadly, come down for good. This was the Kelsey’s most grandiose exhibition to date, the culmination of several year’s work and planning. For this exhibit, the Museum borrowed just over 230 artifacts from the ancient villas at Oplontis, many of them out of Italy for the first time ever, only a few ever even exhibited previously. This endeavor was a major undertaking by the Kelsey, spearheaded by curator Elaine Gazda, with the assistance of many staff. Reactions have been overwhelmingly positive and reassuring that our efforts were well worth it.
The exhibition showcases beautiful artwork from Roman times when Vesuvius erupted in AD 79. These were covered in ash for nearly two millennia, awaiting discovery but perfectly preserving spectacular sculptures, frescoes, jewelry, and daily household objects. With this exhibition, Professor Gazda shows the contents from two villas, and what life was like at the time. Come mid-May, the exhibition will begin its journey to two different museums in the US, and with that these beautiful objects will be gone.
But friends of the Kelsey are well aware that once Oplontis leaves the Kelsey, we will still have beautiful artwork from Pompeii on display. The Barosso watercolors, the 1926 replicas of a room at the Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii, are still visible in the Upjohn Exhibit Hall, in their own special room. These watercolors will be with us past the current exhibition, allowing visitors to gaze upon the level of craftsmanship not only of Maria Barosso, but of the original Roman artists as well. This space is a highlight of the collections, a must see for any visit to the Kelsey.
What some of our newer friends will not know is that the watercolors were not always on display in such a space. In fact, the artwork was rolled up and put away in storage for the majority of its life. In 1926, Maria Barosso painted these at the behest of Franics Kelsey. They were soon put on display in Italy under the auspices of Benito Mussolini, then rolled and shipped to Michigan where they lay dormant for over 70 years. Throughout its history, before the construction of the Upjohn Exhibit Hall and its opening in 2009, the Kelsey simply did not have the space to properly display these paintings. They were too large to display in the spaces of Newberry, and the building did not have the proper climate control and lighting to safely exhibit them. Instead, they were kept in a locked cabinet in collections storage where they teased potential use in an unknown future.
This month’s From the Archives reminds some of our longtime friends, and brings to light for our newer friends, an endeavor to have these out for view. In 2000, Professor Gazda curated the exhibition The Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii: Ancient Ritual, Modern Muse. This was the Kelsey’s first successful attempt at having the watercolors out and visible, not just locked where no one could see them. However, even then the Kelsey was not able to show all the panels as they should be viewed. The temporary exhibition space, where the current gift shop is now located, was simply not large enough for all the panels. In order to do this, the Kelsey had to partner with the Museum of Art. This exhibition was a multi-venue show, with part on view at the Kelsey, including some complementary artifacts and the full-size mirror group panel, and the complete room on view at the Museum of Art.
The Kelsey archives do not only contain the history of the archaeological excavations and forays into Europe by Kelsey and Swain and friends, but we also maintain the history of the Museum into modern times. Every exhibition we have put on is carefully recorded, making it possible for us to learn from our past, see what we have done, how it was done. It is humbling to see where the Kelsey was just 16 years ago, and the limits we had to face. Despite these limitations, however, the staff and curators were able to overcome and do the best we could with the resources we had. Back then, we had no idea a space such as Upjohn would be coming to us, we could only hope.
The files in the exhibition archives contain old posters, flyers, photos, even layout designs. These are a few of the examples we present this month. And it acts as a reminder that even though Oplontis will soon be going away, we still have the beautiful Barosso watercolors to enjoy for many years to come.