How Grad Student Alexander Schulz Became a Key Figure in the Museum’s History"/> Alexander the Great: How Grad Student Alexander Schulz Became a Key Figure in the Museum’s History, Blog, Spurlock Museum, U of I
Alexander the Great: How Grad Student Alexander Schulz Became a Key Figure in the Museum’s History overview image

Alexander the Great: How Grad Student Alexander Schulz Became a Key Figure in the Museum’s History

  • Post Date: 6/14/2016
  • Author: Wayne T. Pitard
  • Reading Time: 11 minute read
During the course of preparing a new history of the Museum for our Centennial, I discovered a series of documents in our files, as well as in the University Archives and the archives of the J. P. Morgan Library in New York City that revealed the story of Alexander Schulz, a long-lost hero of our Museum. Schulz, a graduate student in the Classics Department from 1945 to 1950, took charge of the Museum of Classical Archaeology and Art during his years here, and undertook work on its collections that still echoes through the Spurlock today. His achievements and even his name were forgotten by 1972, when Sebastian Naslund wrote the first full history of the Museum. It has been a privilege for me to "resurrect" him from obscurity and tell his story here.Wayne T. Pitard

Alexander was born in 1905, the son of William Schulz, professor of physics at the University. He earned his BA here, then went to Johns Hopkins University and completed an MA in Classical Archaeology in 1935. He began work on his PhD at Hopkins and spent nearly two years in Greece excavating at Olynthos in Macedonia, followed by nine months working with a noted artifact restorer, Apostolos Kontegeorgos, at the Saloniki Museum. When World War II broke out, he joined the navy and served as a naval officer. Sources indicate that he had returned from active duty to Urbana by early 1945.

At that time, he decided to complete his PhD in Classical Archaeology at Illinois. What might have been a relatively straightforward program of study took a dramatic turn when Professor William Oldfather, head of the Classics Department and curator of the Classical Museum since 1926, died tragically in a boating accident in May of 1945. This event led to a period of uncertainty in the Classics Department. Professor Ben Perry was appointed acting chair and curator of the Museum, but, overwhelmed with the duties of administration, Perry appointed Schulz as Museum custodian in the fall of 1945 (he could not be given the title of curator because he was not a faculty member). When Schulz accepted the appointment, he certainly assumed that it would be a short-term, part-time position that would supplement his graduate studies. But, due to a number of complications, a permanent chair of the Classics Department (and thus a curator for the Museum) was not chosen for four years, and Schulz was reappointed year after year to stay on as custodian. As the job continued and the collection wove its magic around him, Schulz’s focus gradually shifted away from his graduate study to his work at the Museum. The number of hours he spent at the Museum increased, until by 1948 he was working there more than 40 hours a week.

Inherited Problems

When he began the job, the Museum was suffering the effects of 15 years of virtually non-existent budgets and essentially no staff. The artifacts had seen little care, and the collection of 141 plaster casts of classical sculpture that had been purchased in the 1910s and 20s was in a state of serious disrepair. Another major problem was that no real registration system had yet been developed. All that existed in 1948 was an inventory that listed the artifacts that had come into the Museum between 1911 and 1930. The list contained no registration numbers for the artifacts, and there were no identifying marks on the artifacts to connect them to the entries in the inventory. While Professor Oldfather had certainly known the relationship between most of the artifacts and the entries in the inventory, that information had been lost with his death.

Significant Contributions

Schulz faced very serious issues. As a mere part-time “custodian,” a graduate student with many things to do, he simply could have maintained the status quo at the Museum and perhaps made a few cosmetic changes. But he decided that he ought to transform the Museum and place it on a secure footing for the future. And that is exactly what he did.

Mesopotamian Clay Tablets

There is no narrative from this period that gives us a connected account of Schulz’s activities. Instead, we can reconstruct them through a substantial amount of correspondence that he wrote during his years at the Museum. His earliest efforts for which we have records focused on research projects that he facilitated for scholars studying the Museum’s extraordinary collection of ancient Mesopotamian artifacts that still remain a core component of the Spurlock’s Middle Eastern materials. Shortly before Schulz arrived on the scene, Professor Albrecht Goetze, a famed scholar of Mesopotamian texts at Yale University, had sent LAS Dean Matthew McClure a proposal to study the Museum’s collection of 1750 ancient Mesopotamian clay tablets. In the summer of 1945, he came to examine 1000 Sumerian tablets dating to ca. 2100 BCE. He then proposed that the other 750 tablets be sent to Yale for mending (many were broken) and baking for better preservation. Goetze planned to study them at Yale and then send them back. Schulz came into the picture at the beginning of this complex process, which lasted until 1950. The Museum’s files contain the correspondence that went between Schulz, always making sure that the project at Yale was progressing, and Goetze, who very cordially sent back reports. By 1950, Goetze had returned the tablets and produced a list of the date and contents of 1400 of the tablets.

Mesopotamian Seals

A second early project that fell into Schulz’s lap centered upon the Museum’s collection of 93 ancient Mesopotamian seals. Goetze had joined forces with Professor Edith Porada of Columbia University, one of the world’s greatest authorities on ancient seals, to begin a project designed to publish collections of seals in North American museums. Goetze had seen the Museum’s collection during his visit in 1945 and got Porada involved by early 1946. Schulz packed up the seals and sent them to Porada in New York City in April 1946. She made impressions of each seal, photographed them, and then sent them to the American Museum of Natural History, where their mineral composition was determined. By late June, they were returned to Urbana. Subsequent correspondence between Schulz and Porada shows that the former had become extremely interested in the seals. He checked all the measurements she had listed on her preliminary reports and caught a few typographical errors among them. He examined the carved motifs on the seals and compared them to her notes. In his letters, he discussed with her some different interpretations of the scenes on a few seals, and she accepted at least two of them.

Plaster Casts

By 1948, Schulz was working virtually full-time at the Museum, surely having forsaken his work toward his PhD. During the early part of the year, he became aware of a large number of plaster casts of ancient Egyptian sculptures stored in the basement hallways of Lincoln Hall. They were part of the large collection of casts that had belonged to Lorado Taft and had come into the possession of the University in 1937. The collection had been scattered across campus for storage, and the Egyptian sculptures had been languishing under very poor conditions for a decade. Schulz received permission from the Classics Department (with the support of Classics Professor Revilo P. Oliver) to approach Dean Rexford Newcomb of the College of Fine and Applied Arts about bringing several of them up into the Museum’s Egyptian exhibit. The Dean asked for a list, which Alexander supplied, and soon 3 substantial statues and 69 smaller casts were ready for display in the Museum. Two of the major statues, those of Pharaohs Kafre and Tuthmose III, are still centerpieces of the Spurlock’s Egyptian exhibit today.

At the same time, the University’s Art Department was dramatically changing the usage of some of its rooms in the Architecture Building and had decided to remove their large collection of plaster casts that had been used by art students learning to draw the human body. By 1948, teaching styles in art had changed, and the use of casts as models for students was seen as obsolete. The Hall of Casts, as the gallery had been called, contained a few casts dating back to President John Milton Gregory’s Art Gallery, the first art museum on campus (established in 1874), as well as several from Lorado Taft’s collection. When Schulz became aware of this circumstance, he once again went to Dean Newcomb and asked if the Museum could take custody of some of the classical casts. Again Newcomb agreed, and Schulz brought some 30 additional casts into the Classical Museum. These included three early casts that had belonged to the old Art Gallery: the great Laocoon Group that now greets visitors upon entering the Spurlock’s Ancient Mediterranean Gallery; the Polyhymnia, a lovely statue some of you will have seen on display in our Centennial Exhibit; and the Wounded Amazon of Phidias. In bringing these to the Museum, Schulz preserved (along with the Artemis of Gabii, already in the Museum) the only surviving full-sized casts from the Art Gallery. In addition, he brought a number of Taft’s classical casts, several of which still feature at the Spurlock.

Having brought about 100 new casts into the collection, he began working with a few volunteers to clean, repair, and repaint both the new acquisitions and the old casts in the Museum. The team refurbished over 250 casts during the academic year of 1948–49. Among the volunteers on this project was Katherine Henwood, who would become Mrs. Schulz in 1951—a romance about which we unfortunately know little. For the second half of 1948, Alexander lists 1,129 hours of work at the Museum, which indicates that he was working at least 40 hours a week. The result of this project was the preservation of one of the most significant collections of casts that has survived to the current day in the United States.

Comprehensive Registration System

All this would have been enough to make him a hero of the Museum, but 1948 also saw the beginning of his other epoch-making project: the organization of the first comprehensive registration system for the Classical Museum. This was done in collaboration with Florence Fletcher, curator of the Museum of European Cultures, who wanted to do the same thing for her Museum. Working with the old inventory list, Alexander spent weeks trying to connect up as many of the artifacts as he could to the inventory descriptions. Then he assigned new numbers, prefixed either CM (Classical Museum) or OM (Oriental Museum, for the Near Eastern artifacts), to each item in his new inventory and carefully wrote the new number on each artifact. His work on identifying and numbering the individual pieces is the foundation for all the subsequent registration work on the Classical and Near Eastern collections.


By 1949, it must have been clear that Schulz was not going to finish his PhD. His dedication to the Museum had totally sidetracked that ambition. In the fall of that year, John L. Heller arrived from the University of Minnesota to become Chair of the Classics Department and official Curator of the Classical Museum. He kept Schulz on as custodian for the 1949–50 academic year, but by the end of the summer of 1950, Schulz was on his way out. In his last letter in our files, dated July 8, 1950, he wrote in a melancholy mood to Professor Goetze: “And now I want to express my sincere appreciation for your generous cooperation and assistance in putting the affairs of the Oriental Museum in better shape. It is greatly to be hoped, after all our efforts, that the collection will not be permitted to go to seed, now that I am leaving, but I very much fear that that will be the case. At least I can console myself that I have done the best I could for it under the circumstances.”


Indeed, Alexander had left the Classical (and Oriental) Museum collections in a far better condition than he had found them. He had worked with the first outside scholars who had wanted to undertake research on the Mesopotamian materials. He had saved over 100 important plaster casts from probable destruction and had brought them into the Museum, where several continue to thrill visitors today. He restored the entire Classical cast collection for the first time in over forty years and made it possible for those artifacts to survive into the twenty-first century. And he created the first numbered inventory of the Museum’s artifacts, setting the foundation for the Spurlock’s current registration system.

He had saved over 100 important plaster casts from probable destruction... and he created the first numbered inventory of the Museum’s artifacts.

His pessimism about the future of the Museum, while reasonable in the 1950s, proved to be incorrect. The Museum’s circumstances continued to be poor through the 1950s. But by the early 1960s, the University began to take its responsibility for the collections more seriously, and from the early 1980s onward, the Museum’s fortunes have continuously risen. I cannot but think that Alexander Schulz would be enormously pleased to see the successors of his beloved Museum in the Ancient Mediterranean and Middle Eastern Galleries of the Spurlock.

  • Alexander Schulz and a woman pose outdoors with a cat
    Alexander and Katharine Schulz in the early 1950s, with their cat, Toro. Courtesy David Henwood.