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Reflections on 2020

Some reflections on the current social environment from outgoing Kelsey director Terry Wilfong, from the 2019 Kelsey Annual Report.

It’s complicated to be writing about 2019, in retrospect a very calm and safe year for the Kelsey Museum, from the perspective of June 2020 when I’m actually completing this report. The museum is now closed, the staff and students are mostly working remotely, and the country (and the world) is suffering an international pandemic while going through a long-overdue reckoning over the deeply entrenched racism and inequity that harm us all. We’re all trying to keep ourselves and each other safe and calm while getting through a frightening present, facing an uncertain future, and trying to figure out what we can do to effect change. Through the past few months, my mind keeps going back to the summer of 2018, when the Kelsey staff participated in an “Emergency Response Tabletop Exercise,” facilitated by Emergency Management Specialist Sydney Parmenter and officers from the University’s Department of Public Safety and Security (DPSS), including members of the Kelsey’s own security team. We were given an emergency scenario and asked how we would respond (immediately, as well as over the course of time) and to identify problems we would face. The actual scenario we ran was very different from present circumstances: damage to building and collections that forces closure of the museum. But the potential problems that came up in that exercise and in subsequent discussions were remarkably prescient: How do we keep the museum, its staff, and its collections safe in an emergency? How can we work remotely when the museum is closed for an indefinite period of time? How do we protect staff and keep things going over a long-term crisis? How do we get things back to normal? I won’t say we were well prepared for what has happened, but we were, at least, prepared for the possibilities and had already begun to think about how to deal with a crisis. Thanks to our dedicated, talented, and creative staff we have gotten through the beginning of the present crisis and will see it through. 

When we do return to the Kelsey, it will be in the context of a very different world. Like all of you, we have been angry, saddened, and frustrated about the recent killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and so many others, and the violent and unlawful attacks on protestors as well as the hateful, racist rhetoric that has engulfed our nation in the wake of these events. Coming on top of the COVID-19 crisis, which has also disproportionately affected minorities, these events have been devastating to the Black community. Black Lives Matter.

Our Dean, Anne Curzan, has posted a statement on this subject on the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts website, “We Stand Together: Black Lives Matter.” In this, Anne addresses very eloquently the grief, anger, and frustration that we have been feeling, as well as the concrete steps that the College and the University of Michigan are taking to address the immediate crisis and the much larger systemic issues of racism and injustice in our society.

The Kelsey Museum has unique resources to contribute and also our own past to address, in terms of both the ancient cultures we investigate and display and the complex history of the museum, its collections, and its fieldwork. We will need your help and support as we find ways to open up our museum to a critical examination of these pasts, as well as a more inclusive and just future.

As the Kelsey Museum continues to be closed, please keep in touch via our website, social media, and our newsletter emails. Be safe and be well. We look forward to seeing you when we can safely meet!

Terry G. Wilfong
Director (2017–2020) and Curator,
Kelsey Museum of Archaeology