Greek and Roman Gallery Progress from January to September 2008
You may only have noticed something happening when galleries 21 (the Greek and Roman Gallery) and 22 (the A.G. Leventis Gallery of Cypriot Antiquities) closed at the beginnning of August 2008, but fund-raising and planning for this major project had been underway throughout 2007. With most of the funds in place, in February 2008 we appointed a designer to take charge of the practical aspects of the redisplay, such as the overall gallery lay-out, the provision of heating, electrical wiring and lighting, and the show-case location and specification, not to mention negotiating the necessary permissions required. The designer will also be responsible for the less immediately obvious design decisions, such as planning the visitor route through the room.
In March 2008 the project designer, Karl Abeyasekara, who has worked in many other UK museums and galleries, started to work with the Museum team, which at this point consisted of Julie Dawson, Bob Bourne, Louise Jenkins, and me. Karl, who is based in London, admitted that he had never visited the Fitzwilliam before. This does mean he brings a very fresh approach to the design. Together we began negotiating the different requirements of the redisplay- from showing as many objects as possible in a coherent and attractive manner, to enhancing the magnificent architecture of the room while trying not to let it dominate the exhibits.
As well as talking with Karl, Julie was busy assessing and planning the conservation work that a re-display like this involves. At the same time I, assisted by a team of student volunteers, carried out a survey of visitors to the gallery to see if they had any specific criticisms of the old lay-out or comments on what they would like to see in the future. As the design developed I also discussed the plans with the Museum's Education team and held briefing sessions for other Museum staff.
Since the University of Cambridge is one of the leading UK centres for the study of the Classical world, we had always felt it would be important to involve colleagues and students from the Classics Faculty in the redisplay. In February 2008 we invited all interested Classicists and archaeologists to come and spend the afternoon in the gallery and tell us what they would like to see in the future. The session gave us lots of ideas to work with, some more practical than others. In January we had submitted an application to the Arts and Humanities Research Council to fund a project working with colleagues in Classics to carry out research to underpin the new display. This support included partial funding for two new research posts, one on the curatorial and the other on the conservation side of the project. We were delighted to find out in June that our bid had been successful: Mary Beard, Robin Osborne and Carrie Vout from Classics became formal project partners, and in September we appointed Kate and Christina to the research posts.
I pick up the story of progress to date although, as you will have gathered, I still hadn't been appointed at this point.
After the galleries closed in August 2008, and a temporary corridor had been built to screen work from the public, clearing them started immediately. No summer holidays for the Antiquties staff that year! The regular staff were helped by a couple of student volunteers: Thomas Mann and James Brooklyn. In just three weeks most of the objects were moved out of Gallery 21 and given temporary homes.
There just isn't enough room in the antiquities storage area in the museum basement to house all the objects from the permanent display, so most pieces have been moved to temporary storage in Gallery 22, the A. G. Leventis gallery of Cypriot Antiquities, which will be closed for the duration of the work. Vases and other objects that usually live in cases are in temporary cupboards in Gallery 22, and the small stone sculpture is stored there on temporary racks. The heavier pieces of sculpture have been left in the Greece and Rome gallery until they can be moved by a specialist company.
All the objects that are outside cases have been carefully covered up to protect them from dirt and damage.
The old built-in wooden cases have been left in position in the gallery for now. They will be moved later by contractors from outside the Museum. These cases, which date back to the 1960s refurbishment, are one of the reasons that the gallery needs updating. As well as their position, which divided the large elegant gallery into small bays, there are the rather more serious issues of inadequate security and lack of environmental controls. However the island cases, which are more modern, are being re-used in the exhibition galleries, and are currently featuring in the temporary exhibition 'I Turned it into a Palace': Sir Sydney Cockerell and the Fitzwilliam Museum.
In the Greek and Roman gallery it is the long east wall that has undergone the greatest change so far. This is the area where the large stone statue of a Caryatid from Eleusis GR.1.1865 was displayed in a niche high in the wall. The statue was put in this position during the 1960s re-arrangement, and at the same time a curved sculpture plinth was created beneath it, basically made out of appropriately strengthened plywood, seen in the photograph above. The ancient carved stone reliefs and inscriptions were built into the false walls. All these partitions and false walls have been removed now, leaving only the Caryatid in her wall niche. Despite initial thoughts about repositioning her, she will stay in this position in the new gallery display for several reasons. She is too heavy and cumbersome to move safely, while her size and the fact that her back is crudely worked make her difficult to locate elsewhere in the gallery.
While the ancient stone slabs were being taken out of the false walls, some suprising discoveries came to light. Behind one of the inscriptions a 'time capsule' had been hidden- an edition of the Cambridge News dated Friday May 10th 1963 and some modern coins. This was as good a dating tool as any archaeologist could wish for! As well as the date for the re-display of this section of the gallery, the names of the people who took part had also been recorded, written in the modern cement mount at the bottom corner of the same inscription. Richard Nicholls, the name at the top of the list, was then Keeper of Antiquities, and Norman Rayner and Frank Rookes, the next two on the list, were the Principle Technicians in Antiquities.
In late August, when most of the objects had been cleared, trials were carried out in the gallery to find the most suitable type of overhead lighting. The new design of the gallery will need some adjustable spotlights to light objects from above, but we have to take care not to detract from the beautifully decorated ceiling. Fortunately, the lighting track will be unobtrusive, as seen here.
After the frenzied activity over the summer, work on the gallery died down a little. September and October were taken up with interviewing and appointing the AHRC-funded new staff (us!), and in setting up a new temporary exhibition of gold grave goods 'From the Land of the Golden Fleece:Tomb treasures from Ancient Georgia'.