My previous post introduced the history of the museum at Emory University and brought the story to the eve of the replanting of Emory in Atlanta. The second chapter of this history begins when the museum moved with Emory College, in 1919.
To give you a sense of that move, consider that the biology department loaded up all of its instructional equipment in Professor Robert C. Rhodes’s car for the forty-mile drive along the old, two-lane Covington Highway. We can only imagine how the University carted the birds, beetles, and boulders of the museum to their new place in the Theology Building. That building, now called Convocation Hall, was also the academic home of a professor who wrote the first pages of the next chapter of this history.
The front page of the Atlanta Journal for February 11, 1923, carried an article written by the future author of Gone with the Wind, whose byline on that Sunday was Peggy Mitchell. The article recounted the adventures of a kind of Indiana Jones in the Valley of the Kings. “Theology Professor Just Missed Tutankhamen,” the headline proclaimed.
Indeed, William A. Shelton, one of the first faculty members in Emory’s Candler School of Theology, had gone in 1920 to what was then called the Near East at the invitation of James H. Breasted, the founding director of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago. Breasted was among the preeminent archaeologists of his day, and Shelton was one of his former students. Shelton in fact was the only scholar not from the University of Chicago on the trip.
Newly liberated from the Ottoman Empire after World War I, the region was open to Western scholars for the first time in centuries, and with relatively few restrictions on recovering and exporting antiquities at the time, Breasted’s team could send home crates of materials. And they did.
The treasures Shelton discovered included a lipstick holder that had belonged to the grandmother of King Tut’s wife. But while Shelton stood in the tomb of Ramesses III, directly over Tut’s as-yet-undiscovered tomb in 1920, he never dreamed of what lay beneath his feet. Imagine what that collection would have done for the Emory Museum and the endowment of the University.
Still, Shelton found something almost as valuable—a seed. That seed was the materials he shipped back to Atlanta for planting on the Quadrangle. The bill of lading for his shipment lists some 250 artifacts, from Egyptian mummies and coffins to Babylonian stamps and Palestinian potsherds—all purchased with the financial help of an Atlanta cotton merchant named James Manget.
Besides gathering all these materials, Shelton helped shape a vision for the role of the museum in the university. As he put it in an interview in 1926, “One of the greatest features of contact with the outside world that any university can have is a fine museum. . . My notion for the museum I want to have is that it should be started with a $100,000 fund for purchases, and an endowment of $1,000,000” to support further archeological expeditions.
Let me just note that the million-dollar endowment that Shelton desired would today be worth about $14 million. Sadly, it would take until 2002 for the museum endowment to reach $1 million.
Next post: The museum acquires a director in one of the more colorful characters to grace the Emory campus.
Gary S. Hauk