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Kelsey Artifacts Travel the World

Kelsey loan objects from Seleucia on the Tigris as displayed in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

When I became collections manager for the Kelsey in 1988, several large loan requests (approximately 50 artifacts each!) had recently been approved. The Museum was not used to lending on this scale. Scholars seemed to have discovered Karanis and the Kelsey all at once, and they were excited about the prospect of incorporating our material into high-profile exhibitions that would travel to various museums across the United States.

Since then, the Kelsey has made some memorable loans to a diverse roster of museums. In 1995, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art organized an ambitious traveling exhibition, “The American Discovery of Egypt,” to which we lent material from Graeco-Roman Egypt. This show generated an extensive exhibition catalogue as well as a related scholarly publication.

We have a longstanding reciprocal agreement with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, with material flowing back and forth for exhibitions and research. Currently an Egyptian stela from the Met is installed in the “Individual and Society in Ancient Egypt” exhibition. In addition, two of the Met’s Predynastic pottery vessels on long-term loan are currently stored in our SAFE as they rest between installation rotations. The Met has a number of our artifacts from Seleucia on the Tigris incorporated into its permanent exhibit galleries devoted to the ancient Near East, and a few years ago we loaned a significant number of artifacts from Roman Egypt to their blockbuster exhibition, “Ancient Faces.” After that show closed, I watched as Met conservators sampled the paint on our two Roman-period panel paintings in that loan, enabling researchers to learn more about the methods and materials of painting in antiquity.

The Kelsey collaborates internationally as well, with material from the early Roman Empire traveling to and from the Museo Nazionale in Rome. Discussion is now under way about a loan of material from our excavation at Seleucia on the Tigris to a display organized by one of our collaborators in Turin. In addition, material from our excavations in Sepphoris (Palestine) is currently installed in a site museum there at Zippori National Park as a long-term loan.

More local loans have been made to the Dennos Museum in Traverse City; Hope College in Holland, Michigan; Aquinas College in Grand Rapids; the Michigan-based Artrain; the Kalamazoo Public Museum; the Detroit Institute of Arts; and our own University of Michigan Museum of Art. Loans are commonly made to other college and university museums, such as those at Indiana University; the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Reed College in Portland, Oregon; the Rhode Island School of Design; North Carolina State; and Yale University Art Gallery. At the moment, a long-term loan to the Newark Museum is pending, joining Kelsey material in the permanent gallery installations of the Toledo Museum of Art, the Walters Art Museum, the Museum of Art and Archaeology at the University of Missouri-Columbia, the Michael C. Carlos Museum of Emory University, and the aforementioned loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Loan Process

When the Kelsey lends artifacts, what is involved? Usually a scholar who knows about our material, from either publications or a visit to our collections, has the museum with which he/she is affiliated officially request to borrow the material, describing how it will be incorporated into the planned exhibition. Requests must come in about nine months in advance of the planned exhibition in order to enable us to prepare and ship the artifacts safely.

The Kelsey’s curators decide whether the loan should be made, taking into account the condition of the artifacts, the ability of the borrowing museum to care for the artifacts, and any competing needs for the material. Formal approval by the Kelsey Museum Executive Committee completes the review process. When one of our curators requests a loan from another museum for incorporation into one of our exhibitions, a similar series of events occurs at that lending museum.

After approval, necessary conservation and photography is undertaken, reports on the condition of the artifacts completed, loan contracts generated and signed, and crates built and packed. Fine art shippers are contracted to move the packed crates to their loan venue in climate-controlled trucks. The Kelsey has no loading dock, so parking meters in front of the Museum must be bagged off on the day a truck is scheduled to retrieve or deliver crates. (I’ve learned that a full-sized moving van is six parking meters long . . .) It’s always entertaining to watch a tractor-trailer parallel park in front of the Museum; apparently the drivers pride themselves on being able to do this well, usually with quite an audience! Often it is necessary for me or our conservator, Suzanne Davis, to travel to the borrowing venue to unpack the crates and make certain that particularly fragile material is properly installed and displayed.

Loans accomplish many different goals: they enable an audience to see material from many collections brought together and interpreted by scholarly curatorial vision, and they enable visitors to see material that might not otherwise be available to them. From the museums’ point of view, the loan process encourages us to think about the material in our collections in different ways than we otherwise might. It also encourages collegiality and the exchange of ideas with scholars at the organizing museum. When loans are made keeping the best use of the artifacts in mind, everyone benefits.

—Robin Meador-Woodruff