“You’ll see on my left that there are falcon and hawk mummies,” said Sebastian Encina, Collections Manager of the Kelsey Museum of Archeology, on a tour of the collections room. “We have other mummies too — two humans as well as a cat and a bird that are both on display.”
These mummies make up a miniscule fraction of the Kelsey’s collection, which rolls in at around 110,000 pieces — just enough to fill the Big House. And that’s just one of a total of seven on-campus museums — the University is home to Museums of Natural History, Anthropology, Paleontology, Zoology, Dentistry and Art.
“Our collections focus on classical art and archeology which is, broadly speaking, Roman, Greek, Egyptian, Mediterranean and Near Eastern,” Encina said. “They came from mostly excavated sites, primarily from Egypt.”
According to Encina, at any given time only some 2,000 pieces are on display, equating to less than two percent of Kelsey’s entire collection. It sounds small, but it’s an impressive amount considering how large the entire collection is.
Across State Street at the University of Michigan Museum of Art, one can find similar statistics.
According to Orian Neumann, Chief Registrar of Collections and Exhibitions at UMMA, the art collection has a total of more than 19,000 works — and it’s still growing.
“But, we can only display 2,000 pieces of our collection,” Neumann said.
Ruth Slavin, the education and curatorial Deputy Director of UMMA, spoke to the broadness of UMMA’s collection.
“We have an extensive collection of Korean pottery and Asian paintings and art,” she said. “It’s really a large scope of everything from areas all over the world.”
According to Slavin, UMMA is one of the leading university museums in the country, even though the University’s collection is smaller than Harvard’s or Yale’s.
Slavin explained that one of the ways UMMA has increased the amount of work it can have on display is through “open storage,” a term coined by many modern museums. This refers to the use of tables that display several pieces on top of each, but also have drawers that can be pulled out to see other related works.
“Where once there were five works of art, there’s now 50,” Neumann said. “Instead of putting things extremely selectively in a case or on a wall, we have a dense display that allows you to see more.”
Unfortunately, even through the use of innovative displays, UMMA can only have just over 10 percent of its burgeoning collection on exhibition. So where does everything not on display go?
At both the Kelsey Museum and UMMA, recent museum expansions now provide new storage facilities that house everything not a part of a current exhibit.
Encina continued the tour of the underground collections room, located beneath the Upjohn Wing, which was completed in 2008. The walls are lined by rows of 80 airtight metal cabinets that stretch well beyond one’s head.
Each cabinet in the climate-controlled storage facility has big, round silver handles and can only be unlocked with one of Encina’s many color-coded keys.
Opening a cabinet at the end of the first aisle, Encina pulled out a drawer to reveal ancient Islamic vessels with small holes at the mouth that served as a water filter.
At the end of the second aisle, Encina pressed several beeping buttons and arrows on a keypad. Reminiscent of the moving staircases in Hogwarts, rows of cabinets suddenly began gliding away from one another, creating an aisle where cabinets were crammed together just moments before.
According to Slavin, modern storage technology like this exists at UMMA as well, and is vital to the accessibility of collections.
“We’re part of a major research university, and accessibility to our collections has great benefit to teaching,” Slavin said.
Although it seems exhibits hardly scratch the surface of the multitudes these museums have to offer, there are ways to see more than what’s behind the glass displays.
Because of the storage system that UMMA has acquired, professors and scholars are able to request viewings of specific artworks that previously would be more difficult to retrieve.
According to Neumann, professors will often request visits to UMMA with their classes to have a more hands-on experience with objects from the time periods they’re learning about. With the Museum’s expansion, these groups can now study pieces from UMMA’s collection in one of two private classrooms, making for an exciting learning experience.
“You get to be very up close with them,” Neumann said. “Students don’t believe it’s the real thing.”
The focus of education plays a key role in the mission of both the Kelsey Museum and UMMA. Though the majority of their collections are hidden at the end of hallways behind cabinet doors, they’re never lost.