The Golden Age of King Midas opened to the public—with long lines at the admission desks—Saturday, February 13. The special exhibition, featuring treasures from ancient Turkey, looks at the world of the historical King Midas who lived in the prosperous city of Gordion—where Penn Museum archaeologists have been working, and making discoveries, since 1950.
Dr. C. Brian Rose, James B. Pritchard Professor of Archaeology at the University, Penn Museum’s Curator-in-Charge of the Mediterranean Section, and the Archaeological Project Director at Gordion, is the exhibition’s Curator. To develop such a major international exhibition, Dr. Rose saw an opportunity to provide a strong educational experience—and solicit help—if he invited Penn graduate students to join him in the extensive research and early planning phases of the Midas show. A group of 13 Penn graduate students took on the challenge and in the spring of 2013, signed up for the Gordion Curatorial Seminar. Offered through the department of Art and Archaeology in the Mediterranean World (AAMW), the interdisciplinary, interdepartmental seminar drew students from the graduate groups in Art History, Art and Archaeology of the Mediterranean World, Historic Preservation, and Fine Arts.
The upper level seminar required the students to delve into both the rich history of 65 years of Gordion’s archaeology, as well as the regional archaeology and history, while considering how to conceptualize and organize a public exhibition that elucidates the complex ancient story from often fragmentary evidence. With Dr. Rose as their chief guide, the students were quickly introduced to Museum staff and scholars. Introductions were made, and discussions held, with Julian Siggers, the Williams Director of the Penn Museum; Kate Quinn, Director of Exhibitions and Public Programs; Gareth Darbyshire, Gordion Archivist; and collections keepers Lynn Makowsky and Katy Blanchard—and that was all just one day. Students met with experts who shared information on the state of archaeology in Turkey, Near Eastern tablet collections and early written correspondence records, and scholars working in the regions surrounding Gordion.
While expanding their knowledge of the ancient kingdom’s history, the students visited Philadelphia area museums with an eye to understanding, and critiquing, exhibition design. In the final weeks, the students, working in teams, developed initial strategies for a Gordion exhibition, including selection of content, organization, and design.
The spring course ran for just over three months. The exhibition development, however, began before the class was planned. The idea of a Gordion exhibit, long percolating, became a reality in 2012 when the Turkish government agreed to a special loan of artifacts from Gordion, making the dream a possibility. And the show itself would open in winter 2016.
“It was a crash course, really, in how to conceptualize and develop an international exhibition, ” explained Dr. Rose. “It was a two-way street—while the students learned, they also provided the Museum team and me with a strong conceptual overview and a confirmed focus on King Midas. In our discussions and their reports, students provided a wealth of creative ideas on everything from using specific objects to tell the story, key narrative texts, color schemes, even visitor traffic flow.”
For Samuel Holtzman, a PhD candidate in the History of Art, currently studying in Athens, the seminar was a great learning experience. “The Gordion Curatorial Seminar opened my eyes to the many different specialists (field archaeologists, curators, writers, display designers, conservators etc.) who have to work together to put on a great museum exhibit. I realized that the Penn Museum is a very special place because it has all of these team members vertically integrated under the same roof.”
“That seminar really gave us a lot of time to think about what an exhibition like this could be and the freedom to experiment with different ideas,” noted Lucas Stephens, a graduate student in Art and Archaeology of the Mediterranean World. “We produced a lot more than was ultimately used in the exhibit, so it was interesting to see how a museum takes an academic set of ideas like that and turns it into something for the public.”
Even though the exhibition opened nearly three years after the seminar ended, several of the students continued to stay involved in the exhibition and related programming for members, donors, Penn students, and the general public.
“After the Seminar, I contributed to the special issue of Exhibition [Penn Museum’s members magazine] and I helped out at the big gala by talking to different guests about the show,” said Patricia Kim. “Moreover, I helped to organize Penn's Center for Ancient Studies annual graduate student conference on technology, where we offered tours of the Midas exhibition for our guest speakers. Sharing our collective work with different audiences in these various ways has been immensely satisfying.”
Samuel Holtzman’s research interests made their way into the exhibition—and even the exhibition’s preview night gala: “I've been studying the musical instruments excavated at Gordion, and I contributed to the section of the exhibition concerning ancient Phrygian music. In preparation for the Gala, I advised the organizing committee on music to play, which is representative of ancient Phrygian music and its modern legacy in the Phrygian Mode. It was an interesting challenge to come up with an aural summary of archaeological research.”
Having worked at Gordion for several years, Lucas Stephens was not new to seeing the material, but seeing the exhibition open here was something else: “I think it is really exciting to see these objects in person, and to have them available for people at Penn is great. To be able to talk to people here and share some of my experiences and knowledge about the site is really exciting.”
Penn Museum thanks the students of the Gordion Exhibition Curatorial Seminar: Anastasia Amrhein, Sarah Belkoski, Megan Boomer, Sarah Cole, Sophie Crawford Waters, Lara Fabian, Sam Holzman, Patricia Kim, Kate Morgan, Matthew Segotta, Lucas Stephens, Joanna Sztokman, and Kurtis Tanaka. A special thanks to graduate student Janelle Sadarananda, who was not part of the Seminar, but assisted the Exhibition team.
Photo captions, top and bottom From left, Dr. Brian Rose in the Midas exhibition with three students from the Gordion Curatorial Seminar: Kate Morgan, Lucas Stephens, and Patricia Kim. Bottom from left: Seminar students in The Golden Age of King Midas exhibition.