Location: The Getty Villa, Pacific Palisades, California, USA
Date of Visit: January 18, 2016
This last installment of this article series will showcase a few select exhibits at the Getty Villa. While the J. Paul Getty Trust’s collection is an encyclopedia of fine art, the Villa’s exhibits are exclusively classical art and artifacts. As a reproduction of a Roman villa, it is more of a cultural or anthropological museum than a traditional art museum. For a medievalist, it provides a fascinating, tangible experience into a world only a generation or two before the early Middle Ages. From the triple aisle of the basilica to the delicate beading of the jewelry, there is abundant evidence for medieval inspiration and innovation. From the perspective of the museum industry professional, it’s a platform for successful implementation of unique exhibit design and conservation mechanisms.
It’s All About Style
The traditional glass case exhibit design is contrasted against the sumptuous context of the building materials, rooms, gardens, and views. Maps and explanatory labels accompany thematic groupings of objects. The galleries flow in a loose chronological order but theme, style, and object type are the primary order of operations in these exhibits. Many labels describe the manufacturing technique evident in the object however there isn’t a lot of hands-on opportunities at this art museum. In attempts to increase the interactive offerings, a few labels on free-standing sculpture invite visitors to take selfies and post on social media with specific hashtags. In the same manner that medieval builders and craftsmen copied Roman style, the Villa is encouraging visitors to do the same with their poses. I think it’s likely that museum visitors are on their phones for part of the visit anyway, so why not capitalize on that screen time and drive the museum’s social media activity? The bad part: I didn’t have cell service or a wifi connection during my entire visit. #TooBadSoSad.
Statues and Seismic Isolation Bases
The Getty is known around the world for its high quality of museum practices and innovations, and the Getty Villa offers several prime case studies. Many of the statues are mounted on special “floating” bases-known as seismic isolation bases-which prevent falls and damage in the event of an earthquake. The Getty Center and the Getty Villa are in close proximity to the San Andreas Fault, one of the most active fault lines in the world and the source of a relatively high amount of earthquake activity. Jerry Poldany, as a senior conservator at the Getty Villa, was the lead developer on this revolutionary method of installing objects in earthquake-prone display and storage spaces. See the videos below for two excellent explanations on the engineering behind these practices.
One of the unique rooms at the Villa is one of the most modern in appearances. Unlike most galleries in the building, the TimeScape Room has modern décor, numerous touchscreens, an enormous screen with a large map, a multi-cultural timeline, and carefully selected artifacts. This is the place to answer questions that the classical gallery displays didn’t or couldn’t address. The multi-cultural timeline feature, while a bit conventional, is paired with a great big column illustrating the archaeological principles of stratigraphy: the oldest ‘stuff’ is the farthest down. This excellently illustrated display includes replicas of objects like 20th century Olympic Games brooches, a World War II helmet, Renaissance-era coins, Roman tile, and Etruscan pottery. In addition to the “look and learn” materials like the timeline, the touchscreens provide a menu of choices including quizzes, short games, maps, and videos about the exhibits, the Villa’s history, and the Getty’s history.
The mix of elements here is successful because each element provides context for the Greek and Roman worlds. The content is delivered in diverse ways which reach a diverse group of learning styles. It provides the historiography of Greek and Roman studies as well as context for the cultures of Europe which followed the Empire.
A Few of My Favorite Things
I’ll finish off this article series with a few of my favorite objects on display at the Getty Villa.
This fantastic “Folding Tripod with Horses” has hinges and horse details perfectly preserved. This bronze item from the 3rd or 4th century reminds me of domestic medieval accessories like cooking racks, or the chain and cauldron recovered at Sutton Hoo. The three horses decorating the top of this piece represent infancy with a nursing foal, the prime of life with a strong expressive stallion, and an older horse drinking from a cup. The exquisite lion’s head details on the uprights are finely molded with an acanthus leaf on the handle as a final touch.
In the Villa’s basilica, gardens, and galleries, Roman religious sculpture is plentiful. It’s easy to see why the medieval church smoothly adapted stone carving for their church decoration and the practice of using human figures as a central point of worship. The statues of gods, demi-gods, athletes, and emperors are clearly the predecessors of saints and Mary Magdalene’s. At the Villa the collection is large enough to see a few imperfect examples of Roman sculpture; it makes it a little easier to accept some of the more crude extant medieval examples.
At every classical antiquities museum, I try to seek out the Roman Egyptian sarcophagi paintings. The large, sensitive eyes of these paintings are skillfully rendered and dramatic. Small details typically allude to the individual’s occupation or interests such as a stylus in the hand of a scribe or clerk. When these mummy paintings are displayed near their Roman-style sarcophagus, the culture clash is even more dramatic. The medievalist will respond to the details and proportions of the faces, similar to Byzantine icons. The stone sarcophagi often contain scenes which mirror or directly inspire medieval manuscript illumination. One particular example from the 4th century shows a group of Cupids crushing grapes into wine with almost identical poses to several manuscript illustrations of the vendange.
In conclusion, the Getty Villa is a must-see for museologists. The context of Greece, the Roman Empire, and what inspired the Middle Ages is illuminated in sculpture, mosaic, ceramics, and architecture. It’s a chance to see new developments implemented in the mounting of the exhibits, and explore new ways to design education spaces. The collection is top-notch, with stellar preservation and a carefully selected range of objects. If you visit sunny Southern California, don’t miss a trip to J. Paul Getty’s vision at the Villa.