Glass and Light: Making the Past Visible
at the Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum
Review of the Museum
Catherine P. Foster
Ancient Middle East Education and Research Institute
Introduction and History
The Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum is a custom-built 1600 square foot museum facility in Gilman Hall on the campus of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. The museum boasts some 9000 objects in its collection that encompasses a breadth of material from the ancient Near East, Greece, Rome, Egypt, and the Americas. Betsy M. Bryan, Alexander Badawy Chair of Egyptian Art and Archaeology in the Department of Near Eastern Studies, serves as the director and Sanchita Balachandran, Lecturer in the Department of Near Eastern Studies, is chief curator and conservator. The museum’s faculty advisory board is drawn from multiple departments and programs on campus including the History of Art, Classics, and Program of Museums and Society.
While the museum opened in its new atrium location on December 5, 2010, the history of the institution dates back to 1882 shortly after the founding of the university. The organic growth of the collection began with local historical materials, namely an American Indian axe from Joppa, Maryland and a brick from Baltimore County’s first courthouse (Williams 1984). Then in 1884, 689 ancient Egyptian objects, which constituted the first private collection of Egyptian antiquities in the United States, were acquired from prominent Baltimore collector Col. Mendes Israel Cohen. During the same year the first Classical objects—red-figure vases, amphora, and architectural terra cottas—were purchased by Arthur L. Frothingham, Jr. on behalf of the Baltimore Society of the Archaeological Institute of America, which he founded along with the American Journal of Archaeology.
The collection continued to grow at the turn of the twentieth century. While on sabbatical in Rome, Professor Harry Langford Wilson purchased more than 1,000 objects including Etruscan and Italic bronzes, marbles, and coins on behalf of the university. The university’s involvement in expeditions to Deir el-Bahari, Abydos, and El Mahasna in Egypt provided other opportunities to bolster the museum’s holdings with limestone reliefs from the Mentuhotep and Hatshepsut temples and fragmentary inscriptions. Later donations and bequeaths by the Brooklyn Museum, university trustees, professors, and alumni provided artifacts from ancient Greece, Rome, America, and the Near East. The most recent addition to the collection is nearly 2,000 ancient Egyptian objects from the Eton College Myers Collection as part of a 15-year loan agreement between Johns Hopkins University, Eton College, and the University of Birmingham, UK. Objects in the Eton Collection span the Neolithic (ca. 4000 BCE) to medieval (ca. 1000 CE) periods and include faience vessels, bronze pieces, plaster heads and wooden mummy portraits from Roman-era coffins.
Though not overtly expressed in the gallery or on the museum website, it is clear the mission of the Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum is to serve as a research and teaching resource for the university. Between December 2010 and September 2011, over 8500 people have visited the gallery including 17 classes comprising over 400 students. The museum was even incorporated into a recent undergraduate seminar project where students learned about the archaeology of daily life in the Greco-Roman world through the close study of objects in the collection. The resulting digital catalog is based on 24 objects chosen by eight students ranging from childhood terracotta rattles to stunning emerald earrings (1).
Exhibition Concept and Execution
The new museum space, designed by Kliment Halsband Architects and manufactured by Helmut Guenschel, features eleven-feet-high conservation-grade display walls made from metal and double-sided polished glass (Rienzi 2010; Figure 1).
Perimeter display showcasing the Greco-Roman collections. The museum is located within the first floor enclosed atrium of Gilman Hall (Photograph courtesy of the Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum).
A thousand fiber optic fixtures provide ambient lighting to the over 650 objects on display. The walls form a rectangular gallery that sits, quite literally, within the first floor of the Gilman Hall atrium. In a surprising and ingenious design twist the roof of the museum supports an airy atrium lounge complete with funky modernist chairs, a coffee bar, and a suspended sculpture installation that references Greek and Roman vessel forms found in the exhibition below (2).
The glass walls maximize what is essentially a relatively small space through a combination of interior and exterior displays (Figure 2).
View of the perimeter (exterior) and gallery (interior) displays of the Eton Collection; the atrium cafe visible above (Photograph courtesy of the Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum).
While the stark white walls, linen mounts, stainless steel, and cream-colored labels give the museum an exceptionally clean feel—to the point of being antiseptic—the glass display walls make the space open and fresh allowing natural light to filter from the atrium skylight. The great advantage of this design is also accessibility: even when the museum itself is closed, the majority of the objects located in the perimeter displays remain open to Gilman Hall visitors. Unfortunately there are no signs outside the hall to indicate the presence of the museum, but adequate signage inside will point you in the right direction (tip: the museum is located on the first floor—one floor down when you enter Gilman Hall from the Keyser Quadrangle).
Upon entering the museum one realizes its footprint is quite simple with the gallery space in the front and a small seminar room and offices in the rear. A single freestanding vitrine offers dedicated display space for the museum’s small collection of Ancient American art while the remainder of the exhibition is relegated to the edges of the room either mounted to the exposed wall or within the glass display walls. Below the display walls are 42 study drawers with glass tops that serve the dual role of object storage for over 500 objects and teaching tools (Figure 3).
Curatorial assistant Natasha Jones examines ancient Egyptian ushabti figures stored in one of the 42 museum glass-topped study drawers (Photograph courtesy of the Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum).
While I admire the accessibility to the collection, I found the drawers fit so seamlessly within the exhibit design that without the presence of an “Open” sign I was unaware the drawers were available for exploration by visitors until told by museum staff. Staff is actually close at hand working busily behind six large tables that dominate the middle of the gallery (Figure 4).
Ashley Fiutko, an Egyptology graduate student in the Near Eastern Studies department, catalogs objects in the museum gallery. Artifacts from the Ancient Americas in the foreground (Photograph courtesy of the Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum).
This particular arrangement speaks to the primary function of the museum to facilitate research and teaching, but the true integration of work and gallery space is a double-edged sword. While giving visitors a glimpse at collections management “in action,” the seamless flow to which the average museum visitor may be accustomed is necessarily impeded by chairs and portable task lighting (not to mention computer cords). As a former museum professional I felt quite at home with the busy work of cataloging going on around me; however others may feel a bit awkward as if their presence within the gallery is an interruption. In this case art museum purists should embrace this unique opportunity—never before have curators, conservators, and researchers been so close at hand and at your disposal!
The displays are organized by culture and theme, each being curated by different Johns Hopkins faculty members. As such, the entire exhibition is more of an exposition of objects as opposed to a narrative about ancient Egypt or Greece. Still, discrete themes better dovetail with lecture topics or a course curriculum than a coherent narrative of the ancient Mediterranean. Thus this display format appears to be appropriate within the confines of the museum’s mission. The lack of any dominant overarching theme also broadens the collection’s reach to experts and students outside the fields of archaeology or classics who may approach the material culture differently i.e., contemporary artists inspired by ancient forms, materials and subjects.
Exhibit themes range widely from Greek and Egyptian sculpture and Italian ceramics to metalwork, Greco-Roman militaria, and Islamic glass. Notable items include Etruscan terracotta cinerary urn lids that depict the deceased as reclining banqueters, a (badly damaged) marble statue of Eros whose form closely parallels that of the Eros Farnese, and their flagship piece: a large black-figure amphora with Herakles and Amazons (ca. 530 BCE) on loan from the Baltimore Museum of Art. Another major exhibit is the Goucher Mummy, purchased by Dr. John Goucher in 1895, where x-ray and CT scans revealed a woman around 40 years of age who in death displays no signs of pathologies, perhaps an indication of her raised social status. A dramatic display of Latin inscriptions on epitaphs likely from the necropolis outside Porta Salaria (1st century BCE-4/5th centuries CE) also adorns the back wall of the interior gallery.
The portion of the Eton Collection on display is particularly impressive because of its breadth and quality of the pieces. Predynastic Egypt is represented by black-topped Naqada I (ca. 4000-3500 BCE) ceramic vessels and cosmetic slate palettes with snake motifs and stylized bird heads. A large Naqadda II-III (ca. 3500-3050 BCE) flint knife with handle wrapped in gold sheet is especially striking for its size. A fired clay “soul house” dated to the Middle Kingdom (2100-1700 BCE) is very elaborate with a courtyard and miniature people at work inside. Other funerary objects include a Ptolemaic funerary mask of gilded and painted cartonnage (plastered linen layers) and New Kingdom faience canopic jar lids in the form of Duamutef (jackal) and Qebehsunuef (falcon). Fans of faience will also enjoy a stunning blue chalice modeled in the form of a lotus (950 BCE) from the Third Intermediate Period.
One of my favorite displays is “Tanagras: Genuine or Fake?” featuring the museum’s collection of terracotta figurines from Tanagra in Boeotia that focus on scenes of everyday life in fourth century BCE Greece. As many tanagras were forged and sold in Europe along with the genuine articles beginning in the 1860s, these examples serve as both a teaching tool for modern conservation techniques (according to the label a spring 2011 interdisciplinary seminar determined their provenance and date) and a discussion of the reception of Hellenistic art in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I applaud the curators for their openness in presenting the possibility of fakes in their collection instead of hiding or denying this “dirty little secret” of the museum world.
While the majority of the artifacts on display derive from ancient Greek, Roman and Egyptian civilizations—a reflection of the museum’s core collection—other small corpuses are also highlighted in the gallery. For example a display on writing features clay cuneiform tablets from Mesopotamia, a fragment of an Aramaic incantation bowl, and clay stamps from fourteenth century CE Mexico. The Ancient Americas are also represented in an independent vitrine with Coclé and Veracruz ceramics, Veracruz stone sculpture, and a stunning Aztec turquoise mosaic mask.
Much of what is on display has little to offer concerning provenance and provenience; an unfortunate circumstance attributable to collecting practices at the turn of the twentieth century when the majority of the collection was developed. Where artifacts were acquired through primary excavations, such as a painted limestone relief depicting a crocodile biting a fish from the funerary temple of King Mentuhotep II (ca. 2000 BCE) at Deir el-Bahri, the visitor is better informed and enriched by this contextual information.
As mentioned previously the exhibition overall is clean and professional, however, I found a few cases cluttered with too many objects or, in the display of Roman and Islamic glass for example, objects mounted too high to allow a thorough examination. This apparent stylistic choice on the part of the exhibition designers also excludes the use of object numbering within the displays or visual cues on the labels. Instead the visitor must divine from the label description the object that is under discussion. While this encourages a thorough reading of the exhibit labels, for the more casual onlooker the hunt for information could easily become a chore. In a few displays the situation is further exacerbated as labels reference artistic elements not in view. For example, the label for an Attic red-figure drinking cup on the exterior side of the glass display wall notes a satyr reclining on a wine skin, which was on the reverse side of the cup and only viewable from the other (interior) side of the display.
The Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum could easily be considered a gem of the university. With a diverse and accessible collection, the museum offers professors, students and researchers alike prime opportunities for study and integration of object corpuses within course curricula. While the museum itself dates to the founding of the university, its current facility within the Gilman Hall atrium is quite modern, reflecting a progressive and ingenious exhibition design that maximizes the potential of its limited space.
As is common to university museums the collection is eclectic, having been developed through the interests and opportunities afforded the earliest benefactors of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. With this foundation the curators have created an ordered presentation of objects based on culture or themes exploring daily life in the ancient world, examples of writing, or representations of deities in Roman and Egyptian art. The strength of the collection, and therefore the displays, lies in their Greco-Roman and Egyptian objects, including sculpture, ceramics, metalwork, terracottas, jewelry, glassware and faience vessels. The long-term loan of the Eton Collection is a welcomed addition providing cataloging opportunities for students, further teaching materials for professors, and beautiful artifacts for museum visitors.
Johns Hopkins University
150 Gilman Hall, 3400 N. Charles Street
Baltimore, MA 21218
Museum Catalog and Other References
Williams, Ellen Reader. 1984. The Archaeological Collection of the Johns Hopkins University. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. Currently out of print.
Rienzi, Greg. 2010. “Museum-Quality Craftsmanship” in Diary of a Renovation: Transforming Gilman Hall. Last accessed: 28 August 2011. http://krieger2.jhu.edu/gilman/archives/mmedia/slides/1-10.html
Note 1: A lovely video documenting the installation of Vessel Field by Kendall Buster is available on the “95 Scenes from Gilman Hall” website: http://krieger.jhu.edu/gilman/10/ (Last accessed: 24 September 2011)
Note 2: http://archaeologicalmuseum.jhu.edu/object-stories/archaeology-of-daily-life (Last accessed: 24 September 2011).