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Sooner Stories: From Rome to Norman

How do you get 2 tons of ancient Roman relics from Italy to OU? Art museum curators share the secrets behind scrupulous shipping.

 

 

*Updated Dec. 2, 2015: The exhibit has been extended, by popular demand, through Feb. 14, 2016.

Candace Timmons: Hi and welcome to episode TWO of Sooner Stories — a podcast that takes you behind the scenes of University of Oklahoma news and events and delivers the details that bring our headlines to life. I’m Candace Timmons, OU’s social media manager.

Morgan Day: And I’m Morgan Day, OU’s content manager in the office of Web Communications, Marketing & New Media, where I work with Candace. 

CT: Today we’re talking about one of the exhibits inside the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art. It’s called “Immortales: The Hall of Emperors of the Capitoline Museums, Rome.” Up until Dec. 6, the museum will house 20 busts of emperors, empresses and patricians from the collection of the world’s oldest museum, the Capitoline in Rome.

MD: When we first heard about these busts coming to OU, my first thought was: How? How do you get 20 Roman busts from the oldest museum in the world, to Norman, Oklahoma? I imagined it was like an episode of A&E’s “Shipping Wars,” which I’ve been known to lose entire weekends of my life to.

CT: Ah yes, the "Project Runway" of the shipping world.

MD: My first guess was bubble wrap, right? Lots and lots of bubble wrap. Or lots of packing and moving tips from Pinterest. But I have a feeling it’s a lot more technical than that. Here to help us understand the logistics of moving several significant relics from Rome to Norman, Oklahoma, is Mark White, director of the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, and Francesca Giani, exhibition curator. Mark, Francesca, welcome!

Mark White: Thank you. It's great to be here.

Francesca Giani: Thank you.

CT: We are so excited about this podcast and what we are about to learn and I gotta say, I've seen the collection and it is incredible. When did the idea of getting something like this first come up?

MW: Well, we were actually approached by Enel Green Power North America, the Italian energy company. They had been working with the Capitoline Museums on a project called "The Hidden Treasures of Rome" and that project was intended to bring the hidden treasures of the Capitoline Museum to the United States primarily for research purposes. The pilot project was actually at the University of Missouri and when the prospect of doing something with the University of Oklahoma arose they initially were going to pursue a research project at the Sam Noble Museum of Natural History and in fact that research project is ongoing but they wanted to do an exhibit as well and so the suggestion of bringing a portion of the Hall of Emperors here to Norman was advanced and of course we jumped on it.

CT: And when was this?

MW: This first came about in 2014. 

CT: Oh, so for a year or so it had been in the works?

MW: We began planning seriously in the late fall of last year. 

CT: Wow.

MD: I would love to know how heavy the busts are, and how, well yeah, let's get into how you get them from Rome to Norman. How does that happen?

MW: So shipping antiquities that are in many cases, over 2,000 years old to Norman, as you would imagine, is quite an undertaking. and so each of the works is crated. They were then flown over across the Atlantic and shipped via actually Federal Express Custom Critical to Norman. FedEx has a high-end shipping service that they use for very sensitive and often expensive material and so that's how it arrived. Many of the busts are 150 pounds or heavier. The heaviest being Helena, which is roughly around 800 pounds worth of marble. So the installation is obviously very painstaking and very sensitive. You never really just kind of lift the busts and move them over. You have to slide everything into place so that you're not jostling the marble. So it's a long process. It took us one week of pretty intensive labor but we were able to do it pretty effectively and pretty seamlessly. 

CT: And are all the busts made of marble. 

MW: Yes, all the busts are made of marble although there are additional materials in some instances. You will find some colored alabaster used as tunics and other portions of the busts. But the primary material is marble.

MD: Candace, I think we might have a new sponsor for our next podcast. Maybe it's FedEx.

CT: Maybe so. Yes! I like that idea. And I'm a huge fan of FedEx and UPS shipping notifications. I love ordering packages online. I love getting things in the mail. I love getting text message updates about where my package is and when it's been delivered. Did you get any kind of up-to-the-minute notifications on the shipping status of these busts?

MW: We did actually, yes.

CT: And what was that like?

MW: It was like anything else. You know, your package is en route from Chicago.

MD: And when they actually put them in the boxes to send them, is this like when we order something that's very valuable online and we get, like ... I don't think we do peanuts anymore, but Amazon has those pillow, almost bubble wrap type things. What is it when you are shipping these marble busts?

MW: Well, art is very different as you would imagine, although not always, sometimes things do arrive in unexpected shipping materials. But in this case, they had a professional shipping company and packing company named Montinovi who did all of the packing and so apart from the very sturdy wooden crates, everything was packed in foam that was tailored to the bust. So you had sheets of foam stacked up and they, the interior of which they were shaved out to fit the contours of the bust. You removed those sheets of foam layer by layer, ultimately revealing the bust. 

CT: I really find that fascinating. It's like a huge puzzle the you had to take apart. How did you keep track of that for when you have to put it back together and ship them back to Rome?

MW: Well everything is numbered and so actually it's a fairly easy process. And once we unpack everything we put the packing back just as we found it so that we don't really have that guess work.

MD: Did they come over in one big shipment or was it kind of piece by piece?

MW: No, it was one big shipment. We received - there were a couple of busts that were packed together. So I think we ultimately had about about 18 crates, I think.

MD: How heavy were they all together?

MW: Oh gosh. It would be hard to say. I think you could safely say that we had probably about two tons of marble coming in that day, if not more.

MD: How does that compare to maybe any other exhibit materials that have come in? Let's say paintings or other sculptures in terms of the size and the care - how does that compare to another exhibit?

MW: It's pretty consistent for a sculpture exhibit. Sculpture exhibits tend to be very complicated where logistics are concerned. For instance, our contemporary exhibit on James Surls - that was just as complicated but in a different way. One of the largest pieces in the Surls exhibit includes a large wooden table that is approximately 500 pounds, and we had eight people carrying that down the stairs because it was so large we couldn't put it in the elevator. So in some instances it actually requires a great deal of planning and effort. Painting exhibitions are little bit easier. The crate might be heavy but most paintings are not terribly heavy.

CT: So once these two tons of marble, ancient Roman sculptures arrived, who was it that decided their placement in the museum and if that was you, how did you determine which piece goes where?

FG: Well the plan was made in advance before the portraits got here so there was an installation plan that was crafted before the arrival.

CT: And how was that determined? Did you get to decide where each person went?

FG: Yes, there was a selection made out of about 40 portraits that were made available by the Capitoline Museums and the selection was based on the historical importance of the subject, on the art history of the piece and on the sort of artistic value of the sculpture. And it's in a chronological order that we established and it starts with the portrait of the first Roman emperor Augustus and it continues chronologically. It ends with the late Roman Empire.

CT: I think I read that there are 67 total busts in the collection.

FG: That's correct.

CT: So I had wondered how you narrowed it down to the 20, but that makes sense that you based it on the artistic and historical values. 

MD: Francesca, maybe you can tell us what the busts say about the people of Rome.

FG: Well, I don't know what they say about the people of Rome but I think they certainly speak of the historical character that they represent. These were incredibly interesting people. They led very intriguing lives and they had a huge impact on the history of Rome and on the history of really just world history. And if you consider that, portraits in ancient Rome in a way replaced the emperors. So in regions of the empire where citizens had never seen the emperor or the empress, portraits functioned very much like the emperor, often for example, they presided official ceremonies. It was in many ways the only way people had to associate a name with a face, with an image. The other ways would be through coins, which carried profiles of the emperors and the empress but really you know, portraits, three-dimensional objects that were crafted in life size were much more effective in recreating the presence in the areas of these regions. And in associating a name with a face and it's very much the role that they play today. These are our only visual testimonies of these incredible historical characters.

CT: So we did the math, Morgan did the math, I will say. She found it's like 5,500 miles from Rome to Norman. Is this the farthest that artwork has traveled to the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art?

MW: Not entirely. We have had work from Russia before and I would assume, depending on where it came - if it came across the Pacific, probably still, it probably came farther from Russia. But this is certainly in the top five.

CT: So what happens if something is damaged in the process? And what if it's our fault?

MW: Well, if something is damaged then a conservator comes in to look at the damage to assess it and then repair it. If it is our fault then we handle the financial aspect of that. But we try to maintain a fairly high standard of art handling, so that rarely happens.

MD: I'm curious about the atmosphere of the museum when these pieces come it. It's got to be very exciting. So when they do finally come in and you're moving them into just the right places, what's that feel like?

FG: It feels great! Of course, I might have spent a little too much time with these people - these Romans but I get the sense that they're there in the space with us and they very much feel like a human presence. I think that is one thing to say about the display here in Norman, which differs so greatly from the Hall of Emperors in the Capitoline Museum, the fact that they are -they stand in the middle of the gallery and you can walk around each bust and have full access to the portraits, which is not possible at the Hall of Emperors where they are on display in this shelf-like structure that runs along the walls of the Hall of Emperors. So visitors have access to the front side of the portrait, of course, to some degree to the sides, but no access to the back. And they don't feel - they don't have the human presence. Here in Norman they're standing on pedestals. They reach life-size height and so you really get that sense. And some of the portraits turn towards their neighbor and it almost feels like they're having this conversation and it feels great.

CT: Because of the layout and how it is at Fred Jones Jr, did the staff at Fred Jones have to go through any specialized training in order to have this collection here?

MW: No, we actually have a very highly trained staff that is up to date on all of their art handling experience so no, actually we didn't have to have any special training.

MD: Have you gotten a chance to hear much feedback from the people who are going through the museum and seeing these busts, how they feel about them? Do they understand how cool it is that they landed here in Norman, Oklahoma?

MW: Oh definitely! I think everybody is very excited by this possibility. The fact that this is the only destination outside of Rome that these will be displayed and that when they go back they're unlikely to leave again in our lifetime, I don't think that that's lost on our visitors and so the university community, Norman, the state of Oklahoma - we've had a tremendous response to this exhibition and looking through our guestbook you can see everybody responding to this exhibit. It is definitely our most popular to date.

CT: Francesca, I heard you refer to at least one of these busts by name. I'm guessing each these busts have names. Do you refer to them by name and do you maybe come up with nicknames for each of the busts? Here in WebComm, we love to nickname people so I was just curious if you had nicknames in the museum.

FG: I don't know that I have nicknames but I certainly have my favorites. 

CT: Can you give us a couple of the other names of the busts that are included in this collection?

FG: I'll give you the names of my favorite ones: the bust of Levia I think is one the most important, one of the most fragile as well. It is crafted semi-transparent yellow alabaster from Egypt. It's a very precious material. Levia was the wife of Octavian Augustus, the first Roman Emperor. Another one of my favorites would be the bust of Antoninus Pius, who I think has a very poignant, touching expression. He looks like a very magnanimous, very benevolent man, which is of course the image that he was trying to convey with that portrait and I just like to stand there in front of him and I feel protected.

CT: I love it. You mentioned before, Mark, that the collection is due to the generous support of Enel Green Power North America, a leading owner and operator of renewable energy plants in North America. In Oklahoma, the company owns and operates four wind farms? Is that correct?

MW: That is correct.

CT: So what is the link between wind energy and Ancient Rome?

MW: Well, that's a very good question. And I think that the answer is in this case cultural diplomacy. Both Enel Green Power and the Capitoline Museums are very interested, not simply in business relations with the state of Oklahoma, but they are interested in furthering that relationship between the nation of Italy and the state of Oklahoma in a way that goes beyond capital. They want to, in some ways, enrich the lives of Oklahomans through a cultural exchange. And what better way to do that than looking to the antiquities, the really enormous cultural heritage of Italy. And so that's what they've done. It is their way of showing that they're not just investing in Oklahoma in terms of energy and power, but also thinking about the cultural welfare of this state and it's really I think a remarkable statement as to the foresight and interests of Enel Green Power.

MD: We were promised a very special announcement before this podcast started and I just wanted to see - do you still trust us enough to get that information out through the podcast today?

MW: Of course I do!

MD: Awesome!

MW: So the big announcement is that the execution is being extended by popular demand. It was supposed to close on Dec. 6. It is now closing March 20. So it is being held over now for another three to four months. I guess four months total. And that will give the residents of Oklahoma as well as the rest of the United States a chance to see these impressive works before they return to Rome.

CT: I was so hoping that's what the big news was.

MD: That's awesome. I think that says a lot about just how powerful the exhibit is.

MW: Definitely. Like I said, this has been our most popular exhibit to date. We have had so many people come through - so many classes come through. It has been a really educational experience for a lot of people and we're happy to be a part of that.

CT: And is it still free admission to anyone, due in large part to generous contributions from OU Athletics?

MW: The museum continues to be free to everyone because of a generous grant from the OU Athletics Department and the office of the president. So that is I think remarkable. Had this exhibit been at any other museum, likely would there not only have been admission, there might have also been a special fee attached to enter the exhibit. But here everyone can see it for free.

CT: That's incredible. 

MD: Well Mark and Francesca, thank you so much for coming to the Sooner Stories podcast. We definitely loved having you here. 

FG: Thank you.

MW: Thanks. It's a pleasure as always. 

CT: And now you know how 4,000 pounds of Roman history made it all the way to the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art in Norman, Oklahoma.

MD: Special thanks to the One University Store, located inside the Oklahoma Memorial Union on the OU campus. In this one-of-a-kind store you can dream, design and create new worlds with groundbreaking technology. It's part store, part playground. Experience technology like never before and be inspired to innovate. Find the One U store online at ou.edu/oneuniversity/store.

CT: Thanks to #TeamWebComm’s Drew Bernard for his sound wizardry.

MD: And once again, a big thanks to Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art’s communications director, Michael Bendure, for helping us piece together another great OU story.

CT: You can find the University of Oklahoma at OU.edu, and on Instagram and Twitter at @UofOklahoma, and The University of Oklahoma on Facebook.

MD: If you’ve got a story idea for an upcoming Sooner Stories podcast, email us at webcomm@ou.edu. Until next time!

CT: I’m Candace Timmons.

MD: And I’m Morgan Day.

CT & MD: And we’ll see you on campus!