Museum Magazine, Fall 2011, Number 59

Museum Magazine, Fall 2011, Number 59

From the Director, Alex W. Barker

Some folks think of museums in terms of big things—blockbuster exhibitions and monumental images. But I’m partial to the little things.

Consider, for example, our latest exhibition, The Mediterranean Melting Pot: Commerce and Cultural Exchange in Antiquity. Curator of Ancient Art Benton Kidd examines the far-flung trade relationships that knitted together the ancient world, ranging from international grain shipments and commodities trading to the circulation of exquisite and exotic luxury goods. It includes fantastic objects, yes, but it also includes everyday objects illustrating past lives that are at once utterly foreign and yet uncannily like our own. I find those smaller objects some of the most compelling in the exhibit, in part I suppose because they’re at a more immediate and human scale—quotidian objects of daily life that remain engaging because they’re relevant to us and our own latter-day lives. Thousands of years may separate us from the original owners of the objects displayed, but we can imagine them applying their perfume or seasoning their food in exactly the same way we do today, making the distant past seem somehow immediate and familiar.

But when you visit, I hope you’ll also notice other little things, executed by Museum staff with meticulous care. Barb Smith, Larry Stebbing, and George Szabo—the Museums’ preparation staff—always do an outstanding job, but often their magic goes unremarked because it’s most successful when least apparent. Ancient amphorae appear to rest on the sand of a seabed, but are actually supported by hidden cradles. They’re further protected by a shield, cleverly held under tension in a smooth curve, which eliminates corners and shadows that might otherwise interrupt the visitor’s appreciation of what’s inside.

In a nearby case an ancient perfume flask—an amphoriskos—lies on its side in artful informality, but closer inspection reveals tiny clear wedges to prevent movement and assure the safety of the piece. In another case a black figure kylix, decorated with sphinxes and panthers, reveals its designs by being casually propped at an angle, its delicate lip resting against the back of the case. Of course it’s actually supported by a custom-made mount that holds it in place at an appropriate viewing angle, with no pressure at all on the lip or base. Nor is any of this by accident; Benton, Barb, Larry, and George have developed scale models and worked through multiple iterations of sketched layouts for every case, with the position and relationships of every object debated and determined in advance.

For me these small details are one of the deep and quiet joys of museum work. The hallmark of a great museum isn’t just the number of visitors in its galleries or the number of works of art on its walls, but how carefully it does the little things that might otherwise go unnoticed.

I hope you’ll visit our newest exhibition twice. The first time I hope you visit that ancient world that Benton has recaptured in The Mediterranean Melting Pot, focusing on the story and the objects themselves. And the second time, I hope you’ll notice how carefully the objects have been arrayed, mounted, and presented, focusing less on the story than on how it’s been told.

And I’ll see you at the Museum.

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Year: 
2011

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"I still remember the feeling of awe and disbelief when I was alone and walked in the room with those casts." --Ruth Tofle, chair of architecture, winner of the 2013 distinguished faculty award from the MU Alumni Association