"Animals in the Kelsey!"

by: Sue Alcock


Love them, hate them, use them, abuse them: animals are everywhere in our lives. The argument could be made, however, that they were more important to the peoples of ancient Greece and Rome. U-M undergraduates will be considering this and many other issues as they design and help to organize an exhibition -- "Animals in the Kelsey!"

A remarkable number of objects in the Kelsey Museum somehow relate to animals. These range from representations of familiar fish to mythical beasts, from dog paw prints to a camel harness, from toy horses to the famed "owl" coins in Athens. Students enrolled in the course "Food in the Ancient World" (offered through the Department of Classical Studies and taught by Professor Sue Alcock) will use all these artifacts to explore and present different aspects of animals in atiquity: animals as food, as laborers, as entertainment, as pets, as sacrificial victims, as symbols of power and terror.

The subject for the exhibition arose naturally from the "food-oriented" theme of the course. Yet it has appeal for other reasons as well. School groups and families rank among the principal audiences of the Kelsey Museum, and animals are an obvious and natural favorite. But animals are good for more than fun! Studying them reveals a great deal about daily life in the ancient world (what would farming be like without tractors? how much meat might people eat a week?), about ancient religion (why did Greek and Roman gods demand animal sacrifice?), and about political power (as a Roman emperor, why might you put an animal on your coinage? and which one?). One other feature of the exhibit will literally highlight animals "in the Kelsey." Over the course of the Museum's history and numerous field activities, animals have been involved as everything from "dig dogs" to beasts of burden.

The undergraduates involved in this project are a varied mix; while some are concentrating in classical archaeology or classical civilization, also present are engineers, premeds, and artists; a former Museum of Art docent is sitting in. Favorite animals are also highly variable, ranging from polar bears, iguanas, and sloths to dogs and cats. Students enrolled for various reasons: several confessed they just "like food" (and "this sounded tasty"; "Beth's little ears perked up," one roommate reported) but had never seriously thought about it before. As one member of the class, Kim Thoreson, remarked: "I just find it remarkable how almost everything somehow relates or connects to the ancient world. One can even study something as common as food and learn interesting things -- such as how everyday phrases like 'fishy' were coined." Another, Tovah Bender, notes, "food is fascinating because it is such a personal aspect of people's lives." As for the exhibition, a few people in the class already have some museum experience; others were simply curious about what might be involved in setting up a show and "talking to the public." As a member of the class, Leonid Garbuzov, put it: "Hopefully, this exhibit will help to demonstrate and explain the interaction between mankind and animals. By visiting it, people will gain a better understanding of the tremendous importance of some animals in mythology and religion and begin to see these creatures as powerful and potent symbols in the epic tradition and in human history."

The "Animals" show follows in the footsteps of another undergraduate show, "A Taste of the Ancient World," organized in conjunction with the "Food in the Ancient World" class taught in 1996. That exhibition is still available online at http://www.umich.edu/~kelseydb/Exhibits/Food/text/Food.html. The "Animals" show will also be "preserved" in electronic form, with help from students from the U-M School of Information. This exhibition is made possible by a grant from the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching and through the kind cooperation of the Kelsey Museum staff. Everyone is invited to visit the show, which will open on December 8, 2000.

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