Exhibits come and exhibits go. The majority are at least mildly interesting, a good number are more than worth the price of entry. But only few have been, to me, meaningful. Here are three of my favorites to date.
1. The Scriptorium: Center for Christian Antiquities
I was living in Grand Haven, Michigan, a lovely lakeshore community, when I first heard of the Van Kampen Collection. Begun in 1986 by Robert and Judith Van Kampen with the purchase of a rare 1537 English-language Bible said to be stained with the martyred blood of its owner, the collection has grown into one of the largest private collections of rare biblical manuscripts in the world. Spanning centuries, these manuscripts and artifacts provide historical context to the scriptures, record the history of their preservation and dissemination and support ongoing research for Biblical scholars.
Two things stand out in my memory regarding this world-class collection. First was in the chance to see it in the late 1990s when it was still in its original Grand Haven location. Our small party of ten arrived, by appointment, at the private library and research center tucked into the woods on the shore of Lake Michigan. From the road there was little to announce the presence of this gem, and in fact I had driven past it for years unaware. It was quiet inside, and we felt privileged to be guests. In fact, we had discovered this was the last weekend any visitors at all would be received before the doors were closed and the collection prepared for relocation.
It was part museum, part library, part private study, and in fact functioned as all three. Glass-paneled book cases held old leather-bound works while glass-topped display cases housed ancient manuscripts and illuminations and engravings and bindings. A history of the English Bible was described through original source documents. It was an intimate experience, educational and inspirational, leaving the viewer grateful to God for such a witness to the preservation of His Word through the ages.
The second pleasure was seeing the collection a few years later in its new home, The Scriptorium Center for Biblical Antiquities, at The Holy Land Experience in Orlando, Florida. Housed in a structure resembling a Byzantine library (shown above in header), the interactive, highly-themed exhibit connected the historical significance of the works by showing their importance in the “process of affirming the authenticity, accuracy, and authority of God’s Word – the Bible.” (Grace Sola Foundation)*
My mind’s eye still holds true to the visual delight I met with the turning of each corner, and I can hardly remember it without appreciating this amazing record of God’s Word preserved through centuries of adversity. I’ve heard the Scriptorium exhibit has changed since the theme park was acquired by TBN; I hesitate to visit again, lest I allow my own valued first impressions to be dampened or affronted. I shall always be glad for the two-fold introduction to the Van Kampens’ work, and will prize its memories.
2. zoophilious terraquarium: the anarchic taxonomy of chris garofalo
About four years ago I found myself needing to travel north along the Lake Michigan shoreline, and thought it an opportunity to explore. I had never visited the Muskegon Museum of Art (MMA) and as it turned out, it happened to be free admission day. What better opportunity? And what a pleasant surprise awaited me.
The MMA’s collection itself was worth a view. But the special exhibit was nothing short of astounding.
A long, narrow gallery was empty save for a suspended wooden ‘wave’ down the center. Chris Garofalo, a Chicago-based sculptor, had filled the wave with amazing and imaginative porcelain creatures. A description from the MMA’s website says it better than I:
“Garofalo’s finely detailed, glazed porcelain sculptures are comprised of elements of land and sea, evoking primeval environments that have evolved outside the human sphere of influence. Grouped together, these specimens manifest a curious universe of the artist’s making. More than 70 objects, ranging in size from a few inches to more than a foot in diameter, are mounted on a “landscape” specially designed by the artist and her architect-husband, Doug. The primordial scene is suspended with wavelike undulation from the ceiling by cables that allow it to float from near eye level to a few feet off the floor.
“Garofalo titles each of her objects and installations with language as unexpected as her ceramic life forms. “Zoophilious” is a play on the word “zoophilous,” or pollinated by animals. We usually think of pollination occurring among plants and insects, or perhaps birds, in the interest of producing more plants. Animal pollination conjures up offspring that are both plant and animal. A terrarium or an aquarium is a kind of controlled, contained ecosystem of either earth or water. “Zoophilious terraquarium” implies an ecosystem containing creatures both terrestrial and aquatic, equal parts plant and animal. “Taxonomy” is a means of classifying organisms in an ordered system, while “anarchic” describes the opposite, something without a cohesive standard. This dichotomy describes opposite qualities demonstrated in Garofalo’s works—aggressive/delicate, wild/tamed, and alien/familiar.”
Its effect on me?
Shocking silence. When one is shown what one has neither seen nor imagined there is a blankness of mind, only a soaking in—a hope that staring and studying and even squinting will aid in burning the image indelibly into one’s visual memory. How can clay exist in this form? What stirred the imagination of one woman to grant these creatures existence? How can movement be understood in their stillness, and distinctiveness of design be comprehended?
How I wished I could have photographed them all, singly and from every angle—together and in harmony with the wave they rested upon. I was so taken with them that on my way back down the lakeshore, on the same day, I stopped in to see them again. Serendipity be acknowledged, opportunity be seized.
3. The Bactrian Hoard
Another notable encounter with serendipity. While in San Francisco in early 2009 I happened to notice banners hung about town regarding a current exhibit at the Asian Art Museum: Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul. I didn’t know the details of how that nation’s antiquities were preserved through decades of war; I simply didn’t want to miss a chance to see the famed Bactrian Hoard that I knew must be on display.
“A Russian archaeologist, Vicktor Sarianidi, had discovered the Bactrian Hoard in 1978 in Tillya Tepe or the Mound of Gold, which is located in a province in Northern Afghanistan. He had gone there after hearing rumours of a gold man buried inside a gold coffin and instead came across a 4,000-year-old temple. The temple contained the tombs of five women, one man and about 20,000 pieces of gold ornaments and coins. Archaeologists believe that the gravesite belonged to a nomadic tribe from Bactria who buried their kinsmen there some time in the first century C.E.” (Read full article)
I had not seen a collection like it before and neither have I since. For example, the 2,000 year old graves revealed individuals that were buried elaborately adorned with gold. One extraordinary part of the exhibit started with a life-size photograph of the remains of one of the women exactly as she was unearthed. On it laid dozens of ornaments placed in the exact places in which they were discovered, as if she was still wearing them. For me this made real the overwhelming splendor of the artifacts—not just discovered jumbled in a clay pot and buried for safekeeping, but created to be used, to beautify. This cache, noted by many as one of the greatest archaeological finds of the 20th century, has also been considered instrumental in providing insight into this portion of the famed Silk Road whose history has yet to be written.
So many exhibits, so little space! What museum exhibit has educated, inspired or thrilled you above all?
*The pages found at Grace Sola Foundation, Inc. concerning The Van Kampen Collection are full of information regarding the holdings and purpose of their work. Other views expressed on this website, most notably on end-times eschatology, do not reflect the views of this author.