Excitement has taken over Toronto. This summer more than 170 Mesopotamian artifacts from the British Museum will be landing at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM). They are all part of the famous “Mesopotamia” exhibit, currently on a global tour. From Hong-Kong, via Melbourne and finally arriving in Toronto, the exhibit will be seen in three different continents attracting great attention in every part of the world. Together with the impressive Near Eastern collection permanently based at the ROM, it should already make for a great exhibit. But on top of that, the University of Philadelphia, Chicago’s Oriental Institute Museum and the Detroit Institute of Arts will be lending Toronto some of their most prized possessions.
TORONTO: When Dr. Reichel talks about ‘Mesopotamia’ being a blockbuster exhibit, it seems he is far from exaggerating. It comprises of some 173 pieces, among them the most beautiful artifacts yet to be seen in historical art. Through these items, almost every aspect of Mesopotamian society is going to be covered. Royalty will be present in the form of the famous statue of the ruler Ashurnasirpal II (883-859 BC) and golden drinking vessels, necklaces and earrings from the Royal Cemetery of Ur. War, always a vital part of the history of Mesopotamia, is being portrayed by the large battle scene relief, depicting the Assyrian and Elamites encounter, called the “battle at Til-Tuba”. Philologists will be happy to see that also textual elements are being shown, for instance in the form of a tablet from the Gilgamesh Epic. Dr. Reichel: “Some of my favourites are two tablets dating to about 600 BC showing lists of ancient forms of cuneiform signs juxtaposed with ‘modern’ renderings. Such ‘dictionaries’ prove that scholars in Assyria and Babylonia were reading ancient texts: they were actively engaging with the past.”
Added to the British pieces is the ROM’s own collection. It features materials from Iraq, Iran, Syria, the Levant, Turkey and Arabia, covering all of the time periods between the Paleolithic and the Medieval period. Best represented are the Chalcolithic and Bronze-age periods. “The ROM’s Ancient Near Eastern Collection is the largest one in Canada and one of the largest in North America”, says Reichel. “Among our collection can be found, for instance, our own ‘Terracotta Lion of Babylon’, but also several pieces of sculpture as well as stone vessels from Nippur, and ivories from Nimrud.”
The British Museum items and the ROM’s own collection: probably impressive enough when you would leave it at that. But the ROM has a history of working together with Northern American -institutions and they will be adding the cherry on the cake exhibit-wise, so to say. From the Chicago Oriental Institute Museum will be arriving the so-called ‘Bismaya-head’, the head of a man wearing a headscarf or turband, that still holds many mysteries. Was it a ruler of just a man? The Detroit Institute of Arts will be providing their ‘Stocklet Gudea’, a statue of the Lagashian ruler, made of paragonite mineral. The Penn Museum will add among other things one of Reichel’s favourite items: The famous ‘Ram-caught-in-the-thicket’. “Seeing the ‘Ram-caught-in-the-thicket’ at the ROM is a dream come true,” confesses Reichel “but much as I try, I cannot tell you one piece that I am most fond of. It is the combined story of artifacts, their provenance, and their history of discovery that creates the excitement for me. For this reason I feel blessed to be working at the ROM with its great collection.”
Fasten your seat-belts..
Though the items on display reach back in time some 4000 years, nothing about the way of exposing them will be out-dated. For ‘Mesopotamia’, there is going to be a number of ways in which visitors will be able to get a real feel for the ancients. Ipads will show videos to visitors and let them ask questions or answer quizzes about their ancient knowledge. But the biggest attraction in this category is going to be the fly-through of the city of Babylon, no doubt. “It’s going to be a dare-devil flight across Babylon’s cityscape and through some of its most famous landmarks—including the Ishtar Gate, the Great Procession Street, Nebuchadnezzar’s citadel, and the Tower of Babel”, tells Reichel. “We have extracted whatever information we could from site plans and modern photographs. This animation is still in development, but the samples shot look phenomenal: fasten your seat belts..”
The Royal Museum has even more to show visitors this summer. Not just ancient Mesopotamia will be on display, also modern-day Iraq will have its place at the museum. Through the ‘Catastrophe!’ exhibit, details of the Iraq War of 2003, the looting of the Museum in those circumstances and the destruction of archeological sites will be made visible to the audience. “It is a perfect companion piece to our blockbuster exhibit and a permanent reminder of the fragility of our shared cultural heritage”, explains Reichel. Details regarding this display and will be announced soon.
About the Royal Ontario Museum
Currently residing in Hong-Kong, the “Mesopotamia” tour is being prepared for as we speak in Toronto. And the ROM will be a fitting venue for such a large exhibit. The huge building is able to welcome one or two blockbuster exhibits the size of ‘Mesopotamia’ each year. Even when approaching the museum, one is struck by it’s magnificent facade. Designed almost futuristically in the form of a giant crystal by Michael Lee-Chin, the Ancient Near East does not immediately come to mind. Still, this wing is exactly where the exhibition will be taking place. The structure has its advantages: “What I believe will work – spectacularly – for the exhibit is a certain feeling of a “labyrinth”, says Dr. Reichel. But, as it seems, beauty also has its costs. Reichel: “Modern architecture has its appeal while, at the same time, poses challenges: imagine installing an exhibit in a space essentially free of straight walls. I am not going to pretend that setting up an ancient culture exhibit in a thoroughly modern environment has not been challenging!”
With its impressive exterior in place, the ROM also started working on its interior. This April they are introducing a new way of exposition of their entire collection. Eight different areas of focus have been created; Ancient Cultures; Biodiversity; Canada; Contemporary Culture; Earth and Space; Fossils and Evolution; Textiles and Fashions and World Art and Culture. These ‘Discovery-centres’ as they are called, are “an innovative approach to creating a museum experience responsive to you and your interests. The Centres are designed to provide easy access to the information you seek”, according to the ROM-website. The Biodiversity-area will be the first to launch, this April. Next will be the Ancient Cultures region, co-inciding with the June opening of Mesopotamia.