Get a Hands-On Taste of History with Johns Hopkins’ Adopt-an-Object Program

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Museum director Betsy Bryan shows off the Egyptian wand to its adoptive parents, an AP History class from Notre Dame Prep.
Museum director Betsy Bryan shows off the Egyptian wand to its adoptive parents, an AP History class from Notre Dame Prep. Photo courtesy the Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum.

This spring, a group of high school students from Notre Dame Prep found themselves in possession of a 3700-year old Egyptian magic wand. No, this isn’t the plot of a supernatural young adult thriller; it’s Adopt an Object, the inventive new fundraising strategy dreamed up by the ambitious team at Johns Hopkins’ newly re-opened Archaeological Museum. Ever wanted your very own Grecian urn? Here’s your chance.


The Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum‘s collection dates to the 1880s, making it nearly as old as the university itself. Before the Walters was founded in 1934, Johns Hopkins was the only place to catch a first-hand glimpse of ancient Greek,  Roman, and Egyptian art, according to Sanchita Balachandran, the museum’s curator and conservator.
In the century-and-a-half since, Johns Hopkins has amassed quite a collection of objects — so many, in fact, that the museum’s small staff doesn’t have the time or money to get them into display-ready shape. “Some might need intensive cleaning because they came straight from an archaeological dig,” Balachandran explains. “Or they’ve been in museum storage for years, and are covered in dust. There’s a Greek urn with a decorative pattern that’s broken into about 70 pieces — it might be quite spectacular, when and if it gets conserved.”

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Photo courtesy the Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum

The new Adopt an Object program is mean to take care of that “when and if,” allowing interested community members to sponsor an object’s conservation. Here’s how it works:  the prospective adopter meets with museum curators to discuss his or her particular area(s) of interest. Are you more into ancient Greece or Egypt? What sounds more intriguing — weaponry or jewelry? (Since only about 600 of the collection’s 9000 pieces are on display, there’s a wide variety of options.) The curators will match the donor with a faculty member who has expertise in that particular area; the faculty member will then come up with a wish-list of objects the donor can choose from.

The adoption money pays for the expert labor required to clean, research, document, and/or conserve an item. Each item in the museum’s collection is unique, but Balachandran estimates that an item needing only documentation and research could be adopted for around $500, while an item requiring basic conservation work might be in the $1000 range. Once the object is conserved, it’ll be displayed in the brand new Archaeological Museum, complete with documentation and an acknowledgement of its adoptive parent.

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Of course, the adopters don’t get to keep the object — but they do get to make a tangible connection with something ancient. “[Director Betsy Bryan] and I spend our days looking at ancient things, and we’re very aware of how powerful they can be,” Balachandran says. “We want to share that feeling with other people.”

The wand's carvings include images of hippopotamus and crocodile gods, as well as protective inscriptions. Photo courtesy the Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum.
The wand’s carvings include images of hippopotamus and crocodile gods, as well as protective inscriptions. Photo courtesy the Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum.

In order to raise the funds to adopt the Egyptian wand (c. 1750 BCE), the students from Notre Dame Prep held bake sales and shined their classmates’ shoes. When they came in to get a close-up view of the ivory wand, which would’ve been used as a protective object during ancient births,”you could just see the excitement on their faces,” Balachandran says. “This was an object that belonged to a real person — you could see their excitement about that realization, and about this tangible link to the ancient world.”



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