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Francis W. Kelsey Exhibit. “‘Now or Never’: Collecting, Documenting, and Photographing the Aftermath of World War I in the Middle East”

Wednesday, January 14, 2015
5:00 AM
Audubon Room, Hatcher Graduate Library, 913 S. University

World War I was far from over in the Middle East when the Germany officially surrendered to the Entente forces on 11 November 1918. As the European colonial powers sought to divide up the territory of the multiethnic Ottoman Empire, the forces of Turkish nationalist leader Mustafa Kemal fought a war of independence claiming victory and announcing the establishment of a Turkish Republic on 29 October 1923. It was in the context of continued conflict that University of Michigan Professor of Archaeology Francis Willey Kelsey (1858-1927) traveled to the Near East. Accompanied by his wife Isabelle (Mary) Badger Kelsey (1867-1944), his fifteen-year old son Easton Trowbridge Kelsey (b. 1904) and University of Michigan staff photographer George Robert Swain (1866-1947), Kelsey visited a region of the world that not only had experienced four-years of destructive war and devastating famine, but also was the site of genocide.

The initial mission was to collect ancient manuscripts that were destined to disappear in the post war chaos. To initiate the mission, Prof. Kelsey wrote an urgent letter to Miss Belle da Costa Greene of the Pierpont Library on October 3, 1918. He solicited her support for an immediate expedition into the aftermath of war for “unless peace comes soon enough to save the remnants” of Greek and Armenian society, who have “been practically exterminated in certain large regions of Asia Minor” no record of these Christian communities would remain.  It was “now or never” he writes that ancient and medieval manuscripts may be purchased from “unappreciative hands” for a token price. It was now or never that Greek, Syriac, Persian and Armenian manuscripts could be easily picked up and the “possession of these, and their proper preservation, will be a gain to science of inestimable value.” Little did Kelsey know that his travels to the Near East would also become a moment of witnessing.  Kelsey’s diaries and Swain’s photographs on exhibit leave an important historical record that links them personally and the University of Michigan to one of the largest humanitarian efforts in history.

Organizers: Kathryn Babayan, associate professor of history and Near Eastern studies, U-M; and Melanie Tanielian, assistant professor of history, U-M.