BY SEBASTIAN ENCINA, Museum Collections Manager, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology
The Kelsey Museum’s newest exhibition, Less Than Perfect, is now open to the public and available for viewing. With this show, curator Professor Carla Sinopoli has demonstrated how not everything we collect at a museum, and not everything left behind in archaeology, are beautiful works of art. Instead, archaeologists often find wasters, mistakes, errors. Rather than dispose of them as of little value, archaeologists collect these to learn more about the production method, about the people who left them behind, and about so much more.
Less Than Perfect has three themes running throughout the gallery: Failed Perfection; Deliberate Imperfection; Restoring Perfection. Each theme has a number of examples from antiquity (and also ones not so old) that speak to the topic. Many of these come from the Kelsey collections, while the rest are borrowed from the University of Michigan’s Museum of Art and Museum of Anthropological Archaeology.
The materials from the Kelsey collections came from various sources. Some, such as the ushabti, are from archaeological excavations conducted by the University of Michigan in the 1920s and 1930s. Others were collected by private collectors. The postcard image of the glass vessels in a row, showing various states of “imperfection,” come from Egypt, but were not found through digging. Instead, these were collected by Dr. David Askren. The glass shows how mistakes happened during production. Many of these may have been left unsold due to their flaws. Others may have been sold, or put up for sale, perhaps at a discount. Do these show the mistakes of a professional, or the learning curve for an apprentice?
Though they were not collected through controlled excavations, the objects do teach us about production, materiality, and aesthetic appeals of the people who made and collected such items. It is important to have these in a museum, and show them to the public that art is not just what is beautiful, and we don’t learn only through the pristine pieces.
Francis Kelsey was keen on gathering a collection of artifacts for educational purposes here in Ann Arbor. He was not so interested in the perfect item, but the wide range that taught the breadth of history. When he could not make the purchases himself, he relied on surrogates, such as Dr. Askren.
Dr. Askren was a missionary and doctor living in Fayoum, Egypt, where Karanis is located. Askren served as a confidante for Kelsey, and a man on the ground at Karanis. Kelsey listened to Askren on matters taking place at Karanis, but also as a connection to dealers and people in the area. Askren was hired as doctor for the Karanis dig, but he held a more intricate role on the project. In their 2015 book and exhibition, Passionate Curiosities, Drs. Lauren Talalay and Margaret Root discuss the relationship between Askren and Kelsey.
Talalay and Root learned about Askren and his dealings by spending copious amount of time in the archives of the Kelsey, as well as in the Bentley Library and other repositories. The archives provide an opportunity for us to not only learn about the collections and where they originated, but also give us a glimpse into the people who did the collecting. Askren is not just a name in the files from whence a portion of our collections came from, but an actual person with a family and history. By spending time in the files, a more complete image of that person comes forth. For this month’s From the Archives, we present Dr. David Askren, along with his wife and children on the steps of their home in Egypt. This gives us an image of a man who was crucial to the collections of the Kelsey, not only with his own collecting, but his service to Kelsey and E.E. Peterson, Karanis director. Askren connected the men to locals, was instrumental in the day-to-day handling of Karanis, and served as a colleague of Kelsey’s on important matters.
The archives are often sources for much discovery. We go in expecting to find the history of the museum and its collections. We count on the archives to hold maps, and journals, and excavation notes. And then we find some personal histories. We learn about the names that dot the letters and journals and newspaper clippings. We learn about their connections to the Kelsey Museum, and all they did for the institution. A more complete story emerges, one that shows the reach of the Museum its connections throughout the world.