In 1890, Helen Newberry donated $18,000 to the Students’ Christian Association in honor of her husband, John Newberry. One year later, the association’s headquarters on South State Street was completed bearing the name “Newberry Hall.” In all likelihood, Mrs. Newberry didn’t know that 120 years later the building she helped finance would be home to nearly 100,000 archaeological artifacts.
After decades of changing hands, Newberry Hall finally became the Francis W. Kelsey Museum of Archaeology in 1953. The building functioned as the center for the campus’ Young Women’s Christian Association from 1904-1921, and was then rented to the University for classroom use. In 1937, the title to the building was transferred to the University, and in 1953, the museum was established.
The museum takes its name from a University professor of Latin literature and language in the late 1800s. According to Lauren Talalay, the museum’s curator and associate director, Prof. Kelsey wanted his students to “have some understanding of archaeology as well as the ancient languages.”
In 1893, Kelsey traveled to the site of the ancient city of Carthage in modern-day Tunisia, where he befriended a Jesuit priest who was conducting an archaeological dig. The priest offered to sell Kelsey 109 objects from the site, and with that purchase, the foundation of the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology was acquired.
For several years, Kelsey traveled around the Mediterranean obtaining items for his collection, eventually returning to Ann Arbor.
Unfortunately, there was nowhere on campus to house all of his acquisitions.
Undeterred by the lack of space, Kelsey went abroad again in 1924, this time to a site in northern Egypt. From 1924 to 1935, he conducted a dig, and, according to Talalay, “45,000 objects flooded back into Ann Arbor.”
Since then, the collection, which focuses on Greek, Egyptian, Near Eastern and Roman material, has grown to include 100,000 objects, the oldest of which are stone tools, almost one million years old. However, Talalay said that before the recent addition of the newly opened William E. Upjohn Exhibit Wing, the museum was only capable of displaying one percent of its collection.
“We could only display about two or three hundred (objects) in the old building,” Talalay said. “Now we’ve gone up to 1,300 and ultimately 2,000.”