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Francis W. Kelsey

By all accounts, Francis Willey Kelsey (1858–1927), for whom the Kelsey Museum is named, was an extraordinary individual. The professor of Latin language and literature at the University of Michigan from 1889 until his death in 1927, Kelsey was an enthusiastic teacher, meticulous researcher, and savvy entrepreneur who continually immersed himself in visionary projects, ranging from the archaeological to the humanitarian.

Born in Ogden, New York, Kelsey received his PhD from the University of Rochester in 1886 before coming to the University of Michigan, where he soon gained the respect of both students and colleagues. He authored numerous books and articles in scholarly and popular journals, including translations and commentaries on Caesar, Cicero, Lucretius, Ovid, and, Xenophon. One of his textbooks, Caesar’s Gallic War, went through at least 21 editions during his lifetime. Intrigued by the life and art of the ancient city of Pompeii, he translated the impressive tome on Pompeii by the great German scholar August Mau. From 1890 until his death, he coedited the Handbooks of Archaeology and Antiquities published by Macmillan; he also coedited more than 15 volumes in the Humanistic Series published by the University of Michigan Press as a vehicle for internationally recognized scholarship. Kelsey served as president of the American Philological Association between 1906 and 1907 and president of the Archaeological Institute of America from 1907 to 1912.

But it was Kelsey’s passion for collecting antiquities from the Mediterranean and Near East, as well as mounting excavations in these areas, that ultimately led to the establishment of the museum that bears his name. By the 1890s, he had begun obtaining ancient artifacts to enhance his teaching and possibly seed a world-class university museum. In 1893, he purchased 109 archaeological items (mostly lamps, vases, and building materials) from Father Delattre, a Jesuit priest who was digging at the site of ancient Carthage in Tunisia. In that same year, he acquired another 1,096 objects from dealers in Tunis, Rome, Capri, and Sicily. Through tireless fundraising and donations by prominent friends, Kelsey spent the next 30 years building a remarkable collection ranging from pottery and terracotta figurines to painted stucco and inscribed Latin tombstones to coins and Egyptian tomb sets to objects of Roman daily life. During the 1920s, Kelsey also purchased the ancient papyri that now form the basis for the University of Michigan’s world-famous papyrological collection.

Between 1919 and 1926, Kelsey undertook several trips to Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East in search not only of objects for his teaching but also of sites to excavate. In 1924, he secured money for and participated in excavations at Antioch of Pisidia, one of the most important Roman sites in Asia Minor and subsequently a thriving community used by St. Paul as one of the centers for his missionary activities. Kelsey also directed excavations at Carthage in Tunisia, where he dug in the sanctuary of Tanit. Although unable to work for long at the Graeco-Roman site of Karanis, Kelsey was instrumental in procuring money for what would become a long-term (1924–35) and pioneering excavation. The rural village of Karanis would prove to be the Kelsey Museum’s signature site, yielding massive numbers of finds—45,000 of which were shipped to Ann Arbor. Today the Kelsey’s collection represents the finest assemblage of daily-life objects from Graeco-Roman Egypt to be found outside of the Cairo Museum.

Francis Kelsey was, however, more than a well-respected professor, scholar, archaeologist, collector, and able entrepreneur. He was also a deeply committed humanitarian. He aided in the work of the Near East Relief Committee after the Armenian Massacre and was secretary in the state of Michigan for the Belgian Relief Committee, whose mission was to improve the lives of Belgian children left impoverished in the wake of World War I.

In the words of one memorial to Kelsey after his death, “The world of archaeology and the classics has suffered a loss in his passing that cannot be repaired. Dr. Kelsey was not only a remarkable scholar, but a remarkable man with the gift of making devoted friends. Intensely human, broad and generous in his judgments, genial and kindly in even the severest pain, he was also one of the most indefatigable of workers, a human dynamo working with an energy, smoothness, and precision in his sixty-ninth year that far outstripped the best efforts of men in their physical prime.”