Pieces Of An Exhibition

Amid packing crates and gold, a Walters art team meets the ghosts of an ancient warrior culture.

Cover Story

March 05, 2000|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,Sun Staff

Swaddled in white quilting, the sculpture resembles a big baby. It dangles from a thick chain about five feet above ground; its oval eyes peer impassively from beneath the protective padding. Just below, in the Renaissance Sculpture Court of the Walters Art Gallery, Mike McKee painstakingly pulls on the chain, hoisting the statue higher as three other men strain to hold it steady.

Known as a "baba," the sculpture is carved from granite and weighs 2,500 pounds. It was made by the Scythians, nomadic warriors who ruled the land north of the Black Sea (now part of Ukraine) for 400 years beginning in the seventh century B.C.

Babas have stood guardian over Scythian grave sites for more than 2,000 years. Now the Ukrainians have allowed this one to leave the country as part of an exhibition that opens Tuesday at the Walters. Called "Scythian Gold, Treasures from Ancient Ukraine," the show was organized by Ellen Reeder, a former Walters curator who is now deputy director at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and Gerry D. Scott III, curator of ancient art at the San Antonio Museum of Art.

Not everyone involved in exhibitions is a curator. Like producing a Broadway production, putting on an art exhibit involves a cast of many. Whether art handlers like McKee, couriers, designers or conservators, these professionals form relationships with art objects in ways that viewers never will. "We do know them in a different way from everyone else," says Walters registrar Joan-Elisabeth Reid.

Five weeks ago, three trucks loaded with nearly 70 crates of art and exhibition accouterments arrived at the Walters, and the complex process of installation began.

The behind-the-scenes players do more than unpack the art and hang it on walls. They baby it, protect it, come to know it intimately. They learn that the bronze hatchet is not only aesthetically pleasing, but also exquisitely balanced. They know that the fifth-century drinking cup made of solid gold and decorated with horses is far heavier than it looks, but snuggles into a man's hand. They hold in their palms the feather-weight gold earrings worn by Scythian women more than 2,000 years ago.

By the time this exhibition opens, its objects -- the fifth-century gold finial adorned with a leopard attacking a stag, the third-century clay horse head, the first-century gold-and-glass torque decorated with crouching winged beasts -- will appear in their dreams, have nicknames, be as familiar to them as their friends.

As senior collections technician, McKee oversees the physical installation of each art object. It's not as easy as it sounds: If the baba falls it could easily crush a member of his crew. It could smash through the museum's marble floor. It could shatter. It could ...

McKee rarely dwells on thoughts like this. He wipes his brow on his shoulder and gives another careful pull on the chain.

Checking things out

Just days before the exhibit is to open, the second floor galleries are quiet and dimly lighted. Crates emptied of art are stacked neatly near a metal cage on wheels that is filled with objects still to be installed. The disembodied plastic head of a man lies on the ground next to a low platform. Nearby, two art handlers are putting arms on a mannequin. When assembled, it will model a re-creation of the leather armor once worn by Scythian warriors.

Betsy Gordon, coordinator of traveling exhibitions, stands in front of a display case silently reading the audio tour script. As she reads, she walks through the tour, checking for the kinds of mistakes that could have visitors facing a blank wall while listening to a description of a fifth-century silver-plated drinking horn.

Slender and quick, Gordon has a hand in almost everything -- negotiating loan agreements, coordinating catalog production, ordering fabric for display cases. "I'm kind of the information center of the exhibit," she says. "I don't make final decisions, I collect everyone's input and communicate it." As she checks each display case for specks of dust, a bit of lint, wrinkles in fabric lining, she lets her imagination wander.

It settles on a fifth-century hatchet.

The implement is small and neat. Its bronze blade curves in a half moon and its handle ends in what the catalog describes as an eagle- griffin's head. The beast's arched neck is covered in a crested mane and affords the user a convenient grip. "I think this was used to scrape hides. In the catalog it looks so big, but it's not! I thought it was just a beautiful object and the minute I picked it up I thought, 'This is perfect. It's wonderfully engineered, ergonomic. I could use this,' " she says.

And, she asks, how about the fish-shaped bridle ornament?

Made of gold in the fourth century, the fish is long and thin, with delicately etched vertebrae, fins and gills. When worn, it extended vertically down the horse's nose, from eyes to nostrils.

"Those wacky Scythians!" Gordon says. "You picture them saying, 'Let's put a sturgeon on our horse.' What were they thinking?"

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