The collection of artifacts and works of art for the University of Michigan began at the end of the 19th century. The Byzantine collections were acquired mostly during the early decades of this century during a time of intense scholarly interest in the emergence of Christianity. The individuals who shaped University of Michigan Byzantine collections sought the evidence for early Christianity in texts. Prof. Francis W. Kelsey of the Department of Latin Language and Literature played a key role. His acquisitions by purchase and, after 1924, also by excavation helped to shape the three major Byzantine collections which are housed in the Papyrology Room, the Rare Books Room and the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology. Prof. Kelsey and other scholars, primarily classicists also sought artifactual evidence for daily life, the economy and the administration of the Empire during the period of transition from the Roman to the Byzantine empires. Consequently, University of Michigan collections are strongest for the early Byzantine period.

Collectors, as individuals and as institutions, attempt to conserve evidence of cultural developments. Thus, the activity of collecting is more than the hunt for rare and precious items, and more than their discovery and subsequent maintenance. Collecting is also a process that can involve the selection of facts, the elision of the unknown or disturbing, and the shaping of a particular version of history.

Collections represent the past by displaying and explaining specific, tangible remains. Museum-goers (including specialized historians) imagine generalities of the settings that produced these works: who made it? in what type of setting? what happened when it was no longer needed?. Our curiosity does not diminish merely because relatively few of such basic questions find answers. Despite the efforts of collectors, curators of collections, and other scholars whose work explores material survivors of the past, the past remains irrevocably distant, in need of preservation, further research and fresh imaginations.

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