Of Gods and Glamour: The Mary and Michael Jaharis Galleries of Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Art

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Review

of an Exhibit

by Gail Gomez

Published on March 11, 2013

  • Museum: Art Institutute Chicago

  • Visit Date: February, 2013

  • Description:

    I visited the exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago titled Of Gods and Glamour: The Mary and Michael Jaharis Galleries of Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Art for this review. The exhibit focuses on the development and origins of Western art and showcases over 500 objects, ranging from Mesopotamian to late Byzantine cultures. Drawing on works from the museum’s permanent ancient art collection and items borrowed from private collections and other public institutions, the Art Institute has created a varied and attractive display. While the glimmering vitrines and exotic objects are quite captivating, as a student studying Museums and exhibitions it was hard not to notice its pitfalls.

    A large introductory panel and map orients visitors to the regions and cultures included in the exhibit, which visitors seemed to like, I saw many people spending a few moments to take in the information as they entered the galleries. Almost every object is displayed with an extended label describing it in detail and how it was used or made; some vitrines even included a small map showing specifically where the object was found or created. Introductory panels for each sub-section made it clear when you were transitioning from one period or culture to the next and each section offered a nice variety of objects from utilitarian items like cook wear and ceramic vessels to statues and jewelry. One of the more appealing displays in the exhibit shows a variety of pieces of colored blown glass from ancient Rome. The glass pieces are arranged in a dark vitrine and back lit to show off the brilliant colors. The texts in the exhibit did use approachable language but with so much text everywhere you look, it could overwhelm some visitors. The exhibit also includes a film about the history of the museum’s ancient and Byzantine collection and the conservation of some of its objects, unfortunately it is tucked in a tiny gallery space in the back corner a long with a few objects that demonstrate phases of conservation and no one seemed to be interested in going back there to watch the video which had very interesting content (I assume this placement was due to the open audio of the video). The last section of the exhibit is filled with large Byzantine mosaics that are fun to look at and well displayed on the walls and low podiums for the floor mosaics. Then the exhibit flows nicely into the special exhibition, Late Roman and Early Byzantine Treasures from the British Museum, which has a similar focus and closes the show out nicely.

    Unlike a lot of the other galleries at the Art Institute this exhibit offers what the Museum calls an “interactive media gallery” which is essentially 16 iPad stations set up throughout the exhibit. Some of the iPads describe the object they were placed next to in detail and then offer numbered points of more in depth descriptions and explanations which you can tap if you want to read more, they also have a 360° view, as well as related stories and information. Other iPads give you a guided virtual tour of the whole exhibition. The placement of the iPads was at a lower level making them easily accessible for children or for people in wheel chairs who may not be able to take in the whole display. The galleries are easy to move through for a mobile person but would not have been as easy to navigate for a person with limited mobility or in a wheelchair, as it is a maze of vitrines of all sizes with no straightforward pathway to follow. When walking through the space it becomes evident that there was no much consideration given to the flow and accessibility of the exhibit. Though there are plenty of places to sit at the beginning and end of the U-shaped galleries, there are not any benches once you are in the exhibit. iPads seem like a great way to make the exhibition available virtually for those with limited mobility, unfortunately the ones that were placed in the entrance area to provide a virtual tour were not working on the two occasions I have visited this exhibition recently.

    The Art Institute’s new installation of their ancient art objects is attractive and informative but the design has some flaws. The exhibit is nicely done and the subject appeals to many different publics but the physical space does not encourage easy access for all visitors. With a few minor changes and considerations the exhibition could be opened up and made more accessible to a wider range of people.

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