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Block Museum of Art Exhibit Inspires Two Northwestern Courses

An exhibition at Northwestern’s Block Museum of Art will take shape during two courses this fall quarter.

Paint the Eyes Softer: Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt” presents Roman-Egyptian mummy portraits and related artifacts from the site of ancient Tebtunis in Egypt. Most of the objects on display are loans from the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, which holds one of the largest collections of mummy portraits from a single site in the world. In addition to a group of six mummy portraits, the exhibit will feature a complete portrait mummy of a child from the Garrett Evangelical-Theological Seminary collection on Northwestern’s campus.

“Paint the Eyes Softer” will be co-curated by Marc Walton, Research Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at Northwestern and Senior Scientist at NU-ACCESS; Taco Terpstra, Northwestern Assistant Professor of Classics and History; and Essi Rönkkö, Curatorial Associate at Block Museum. During Fall 2017, the curators will teach an advanced, interdisciplinary undergraduate seminar focusing on these objects that will combine materials science, archaeology and museum studies. Students will gain insight into and actively contribute to the exhibition’s didactic materials, public programs and publications.

“This is the first exhibition to highlight this collection and Professor Walton’s research into the materiality of these objects” Rönkkö says. “The exhibition will unveil rigorous scientific research, but remain accessible to the public. We think about bringing together new perspectives and new research, asking “How do fields of human endeavor and creativity intersect in unexpected ways?”

“Paint the Eyes Softer” certainly fits the bill. The project is an interdisciplinary collaboration between five different departments within Northwestern University including Classics, Sound Arts and Industries, Material Science, Computer Science, the Feinberg School of Medicine and Art History.

The second course related to the exhibition is on museum sound design for the Sound Arts and Industries program and will be taught by Stephan Moore, a professor in Northwestern’s Radio/Television/Film Department.

Students will explore the current state of sound design for museum exhibitions through presentations, discussions, field trips and technical demonstrations. As a final project, students will create a fully realized sound design for the exhibition. This project will be supported throughout the quarter by presentations from the curators and scholars contributing to the exhibition, a tour of the exhibition space and a review of the available sound technology used in the museum. Moore, the curators and the Block museum exhibition design staff will choose a winning proposal to be installed in the exhibition.

“We don’t want to be too prescriptive in our assignment,” Rönkkö says. “We want [students] to be able to run with it and be creative.”

Some of the challenges Rönkkö says students will face include potential echo in the gallery space and striking the right tone in relation to the time period.

“We don’t know much about the soundscape of the Roman period in Egypt, so creating soundscapes with music or spoken language is tricky. Doing something abstract can often be more successful than trying to recreate original context,” Rönkkö says.

Though not all exhibitions include sound elements, Rönkkö believes it’s an aspect that can truly change a museum-goer’s experience.

“Personally, I have noticed that I tend to spend more time in an exhibition with a sound element,” she says. “It will be interesting to see what the students come up with.”

Learn about other ways the Block Museum has collaborated with Northwestern: