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Saturday, November 14, 2015

University of Cincinnati’s Department of Classics Curates Permanent Antiquities Gallery at the Cincinnati Art Museum

University of Cincinnati’s Department of Classics Curates Permanent Antiquities Gallery at the Cincinnati Art Museum

Faculty and students at the McMicken College of Arts & Sciences’ classics department collaborated with the CAM to tell the stories of the past.

Date: 11/11/2015 4:00:00 PM
By: Zach Hatfield
Other Contact: Meg Sneeringer
Photos By: Jean Assell

UC ingot  
Antiquity in the Cincinnati Art Museum
A marble lion housed in the permanent gallery.

Step into the Sherie and Len Marek Family Gallery at the Cincinnati Art Museum, and you are greeted by faces from the past — two rows of ancient sculptures from the ancient Mediterranean and Egypt. 

Visible through the doorway at the other end of the room, a larger than life marble lion crouches, ready to spring off a pedestal in the Millard F. Rogers Jr. Gallery. Here, you will find the oldest piece in the museum: a red and black clay vessel from ancient Egypt's Naqada culture, decorated with an incised Barbary sheep. 

On Oct. 3, the Cincinnati Art Museum opened two new permanent galleries to display their collections of ancient Greek, Roman, and Egyptian art. This undertaking was the product of collaboration between students and faculty from the University of Cincinnati, especially graduate students from the department of classics, and the curatorial and learning & interpretation departments at the CAM. 

The partnership re-established ties between the distinguished classics community at UC and the CAM, a fixture of the greater Cincinnati area since 1886. When the invitation to be part of the re-installation of the antiquities collections was presented to professor Kathleen Lynch by museum director Cameron Kitchin in Feb. 2015, the immediate answer was an enthusiastic yes.

Over the next few months, a team of over 20 members of the classics community, including undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty of classics and DAAP, mobilized to tackle the tasks of choosing objects for display, formulating learning objectives, and writing wall text and label copy. Although the classics department boasts an award-winning outreach program, the first step was to meet with Emily Holtrop, CAM's director of learning & interpretation. She challenged the UC group: what do you want the visitor to learn? A second important question followed: what stories can the museum's collections tell?

To answer that second question, the team turned to Cynthia Amneus, chief curator at the CAM, and conservators Kelly Schulze and Serena Urry. Over the course of several visits, Amneus led groups through the storage shelves deep in the basement of the museum. The primary goal was simply to see what was available, while the secondary goal was to make lists of candidates for display in the redesigned galleries. Some selections were vetoed immediately by the conservators — too delicate or sensitive to the light, too much repair required — but at the end of the trip, the team had a good idea what stories the collection could tell.

“We have this idealized notion of telling the complete story of the ancient Mediterranean — birth to death, commoners to elites — and of starting with the image of antiquity and then picking artifacts to support it,” said Meg Sneeringer, a graduate student in the classics department. “But it's really the other way around.”

The team members agreed that a thematic organization would be the best way to present the material. This would be a departure from the traditional method of geographic and chronological organization, but would provide a more approachable presentation of the material. 

People in the ancient Mediterranean stored the ashes of their deceased in urns, just like us; people in ancient Egypt wore sandals and make-up and jewelry, just like us. In the end, three themes were chosen: daily life, religion and mythology and death. Within each of these three overarching themes, there are further sub-topics, from warfare and athletics, to the origins of writing, to votives and offerings to the gods, to deconstructing an Egyptian mummy's burial. In these two galleries full of antiquities, you will find objects spanning ancient lives from birth to death. 

Ribbon cutting
Dr. Kathleen Lynch, professor of UC's Department of Classics; Cameron Kitchin, the Director of the Cincinnati Art Museum; Nina Rogers and Sherie Marek, CAM supporters cut the ribbon to dedicate the galleries.

By the end of the semester, the groups had gone through several rounds of editing, paring down the original 176 objects to just over 130 and generating text for everything from individual labels to introductory wall placards. From this point, the museum staff went to work in earnest: preparators created mounts and built the display cases, conservators prepared objects for display, and the text for the gallery went through many rounds of editing by both curatorial and learning & interpretation staff. At the same time, CAM staff — with help from a DAAP seminar devoted to finding innovative ways to complement the exhibit — were working with Paperplane Creative and Clifton Labs to produce content for state-of-the-art interactive touch tables, funded by Harry and Ann Santen.

The finished galleries opened on Oct. 3, accompanied by a collaborative event called Cincinnati Digs!, a special Family First Saturday and archaeology fair celebrating the beginning of Archaeology Month. The free event drew over 1,500 people throughout the day, offering everything from art projects to real touchable artifacts to lectures from local archaeologists and further strengthened the ties between the CAM, UC and the greater Cincinnati community. 

The success of this first-of-its-kind collaboration is a win-win for UC, CAM and its visitors. 

“We are very pleased to present to our visitors creative and exciting new galleries,” said Kitchin. “Our partnership with the University of Cincinnati has been a wonderful undertaking, and I am grateful for their deep commitment to learning. Based on our deep collections, the museum’s new antiquities galleries will prove educational both for the youngest students and for antiquities scholars.” 

The project allowed students to immerse themselves in what they are passionate about. Ginelle Wells, a fourth-year undergraduate art history student at UC, aspires to be a curator. Working as a team leader on the exhibit gave her important insights into her field of study.  

“I’ve taken courses on the practice of curating, and being able to apply some of the methods I’ve learned in the classroom to an actual exhibition space was a great experience,” Wells said. “It taught me about elements that I hadn't thought about being part of art history or curatorial work.” 

On the UC side, Lynch commented, “Working with CAM has provided our classics graduate and undergraduate students an opportunity to share their passion and expertise about the ancient world with a new audience.” 

Stop by the Cincinnati Art Museum Tuesday through Sunday, from 11 AM to 5 PM, to visit the new galleries. 

UC’s nationally ranked department of classics is one of the most active centers for the study of the Greek and Roman Antiquity in the United States.

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