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Creating Sicily

Statue of a Youth (The Mozia Charioteer) (detail), 470–460 BC. Sikeliote (Sicilian Greek). Marble; 181 x 40 cm. Courtesy of the Servizio Parco archeologico e ambientale presso le isole dello Stagnone e delle aree archeologiche di Marsala e dei Comuni limitrofi–Museo Archeologico Baglio Anselmi. By permission of the Regione Siciliana, Assessorato dei Beni Culturali e dell’Identità Siciliana. Dipartimento dei Beni Culturali e dell’Identità Siciliana. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Have you ever wondered how a spectacular exhibition like Sicily: Art and Invention between Greece and Rome comes together? How is it organized and assembled? We spoke with Michael Bennett, Curator of Greek and Roman Art and co-curator of the Sicily exhibition, and Jim Engelmann, Exhibition Designer, to get a behind-the-scenes look at how they orchestrated the design of a major exhibition.

The Sicily exhibition is inspired primarily by one work, the Mozia Charioteer. “This single work of art is the reason why the show exists and why it is here at the Cleveland Museum of Art,” explained Michael Bennett. “I said at the beginning – if we can get the Mozia Charioteer we can design a show around it and we literally did that from a design point of view.” This masterwork, dating back to 470 BC, is the finest Greek marble statue that has survived from ancient Greece and it is both literally and figuratively the focal point of the exhibition. 

Michael Bennett insisted that the Charioteer have a gallery of its own. In initial designs, Jim Engelmann featured the Charioteer at the very beginning of the show, but upon further thought he decided against the idea. “This is a really unique object, and it’s very striking – to have it be the first thing you see and then never see it again is, in some ways, a let-down,” said Engelmann. So he came up with a new plan to put the statue in its own gallery in the center of the exhibition. Visitors now encounter the Charioteer “at a point where you’ve gotten a sense of what Sicily was like, what the artistic climate was like and in a space where you can sit with the figure for some time,” said Bennett. The Mozia Charioteer stands in its own gallery, with benches for visitors to rest and to admire him. Bennett said the inspiration was a sacred space, like the interior of a Greek temple. In order to reveal the virtuoso carving of the marble figure, lighting was extremely important. Bennett remarked, “I wanted the sculpture to resemble the full moon in the night sky.”

The room where the Charioteer is displayed functions as an enticement to explore further into the exhibition. Engelmann designed openings in the walls of that gallery through which visitors are, in turn, permitted to see the Charioteer and other large stone sculptures at strategic moments, and to compare them. “You reveal parts of the exhibition in sequence, not all together,” noted Bennett. This technique helps draw visitors through each gallery by sustaining interest and curiosity, and provides a sense of the overall tone of the exhibition. 

In the development of an exhibition, curators and designers work together to create a spaces where visitors have an immediate understanding of another place and time. “Design is of paramount importance for an exhibition, it’s number one,” explained Bennett. Exhibitions begin with and are supported by scholarship but “scholarship means very little if you can’t emotionally move the visitors.” Bennett added, “going through an exhibition is an aesthetic experience – it’s a sensual experience. You come in and you’re supposed to feel that you’re in another world.” For example, as soon as visitors walk into Sicily they encounter a stunning, floor to ceiling image of the Sicilian coast to the left, a view of the Charioteer to the right and straight ahead, a gorgeous image of the fertile plains below Mount Etna that acts as the backdrop in one of the galleries.  “We really tried to do that with any gallery view that we could,” says Engelmann, “where you could stand at the entrance to each gallery and look all the way around and you’d be hit with these radial patterns of fascinating sight-lines.” Bennett and Engelmann wanted visitors to have a sense of Greek Sicily without needing to read a label.  

Object placement also plays a critical role in the design of an exhibition. Engelmann and Bennett were adamant about isolating the highest quality pieces in the show and showcasing them. In reference to such exquisite works as Mixing Vessel with Demeter, Triptolemos, and Persephone or Head of Polyphemos, Bennett said, “if you have great pieces like this, I think you are obligated to make sure people see them, appreciate them, and that they can’t avoid them.” They made such pieces stand-alone objects and placed them in strategic spots, like in the middle of walkways or in the center of galleries, so that visitors cannot help but admire them. “Treat the great works of art as great – they are the true stars of the show, they are the leads,” noted Bennett. From lighting an object so that its sculptural qualities come to life, to making sure objects never overlap in sight-lines, details are crucial in making an exhibition successful. 

While both Michael Bennett and Jim Engelmann are immensely proud of the work they have done on Sicily, ultimately they see it as a vehicle to promote tourism. “I encourage all of our readers to visit Sicily because this is just a tiny sampling of what the island produced. Everyone owes it to themselves to see the real thing,” said Bennett. Whether you plan to make the trip across the Atlantic soon, or not, don’t miss Sicily: Art and Invention between Greece and Rome, open through January 5, 2014. 

-Therese Conway

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