In July of 2019, a team of Getty staff was in Paris to examine artworks—some nearly 5000 years old—that would travel to Los Angeles the following spring for an exhibition exploring the rich history of ancient Iraq. Back then, we didn’t know that we’d finish installing this exhibition just to see the doors locked, and the lights turned off, before having the chance to share it with visitors. This is the story behind the making of Mesopotamia: Civilization Begins.
Back in 2016, Timothy Potts, Director of the Getty Museum and a specialist in the ancient Near East, was excited to see a new exhibition by Musée du Louvre curator Ariane Thomas called L’Histoire commence en Mésopotamie. Potts had hoped to bring Mesopotamia to Los Angeles as part of an effort to put the Getty’s permanent antiquities collection in the broader context of the diverse cultures of the ancient Mediterranean and Near East.
Over a multi-year collaboration, Potts and Thomas, along with a team of curators, designers, educators, editors, conservators, and mount makers, developed an exhibition for the Getty Villa that would showcase the Louvre’s extensive Mesopotamian collection. For the show to fit within the Villa’s gallery spaces, the team focused on three key concepts—cities, writing, and kingship—and included about one-third of the original Louvre exhibition’s 450 pieces.
Flash forward to the summer of 2019 in Paris. At the height of a heatwave gripping Europe with temperatures up to 107 degrees, we spent a week examining and 3D scanning more than 120 objects in the Mesopotamian galleries and storerooms. The gallery spaces were monumental—the storerooms, vast. On one particularly memorable day when the Louvre was closed to the public, we set up shop near the museum’s Khorsabad Court, where we were watched over by colossal lamassu (statues of winged, human-headed bulls) from the ancient Assyrian palace of King Sargon II in Khorsabad, Iraq.
Getty’s mount makers used portable scanning equipment to capture high-resolution 3D images of the pieces, which in the following months would be used to design and build individual anti-seismic mounts for the objects so that they could be safely displayed in earthquake-prone Southern California. We also discussed other measures of conservation needed to protect the works during transit and while on display at the Getty Villa, including how to secure heavy stone statues that appear stable at first glance but are fragmented and potentially vulnerable.
After we got back home to LA, the mount makers used their library of fresh scans from Paris to produce a set of copies of the Mesopotamian artworks using several 3D printers. Forming a kind of shadow exhibition, these 3D prints filled an entire cabinet in the shop tucked in the Villa’s basement. The mount makers used these models to prepare custom mounts without needing to have the original objects present. This allowed mounts to be fabricated months before the actual loans would arrive for the busy four-week period of installation in the galleries.
Crates of objects began arriving in February 2020. Arranging shipments for this exhibition was an especially complex job because we needed to carefully transport objects that ranged from small, delicate cylinder seals and cuneiform tablets to large stone sculptures. To help ensure their safety, the crates were accompanied by Thomas and two of her Louvre colleagues, who worked closely with us through the entire installation period.
In the galleries, we used some of the 3D prints again, to finalize the placement of objects in a case or determine their exact position on the wall. This approach helped us minimize the amount of handling the delicate objects were exposed to.
Things went according to plan until about halfway through our installation, when an unexpected change appeared on the horizon. When France was hit by a first wave of coronavirus infections, the Louvre closed its doors, then canceled all shipments of their art collections. We counted ourselves lucky that our Mesopotamia loans had arrived in the nick of time for the exhibition to go forward. A few days later, as all Louvre staff travel was halted, the Paris delegation planning to attend the exhibition opening had to abandon their trip to Los Angeles. Shortly after this, Californians were advised to avoid gathering in large numbers.
Despite the circumstances, the installation continued. It is a deliberately careful and therefore mostly quiet process—punctuated only by the occasional power drill or the whine of the forklift—when preparators place and adjust objects on pedestals or wall mounts, all under the exacting eyes of curators, designers, and conservators.
Everything was complete on Friday, March 13, 2020, ready for what would have been the public opening the following week. That was the day before the Getty closed both of its sites to the public in response to the pandemic. It was also one of the last days for our Louvre colleagues to return to Paris before getting stuck far away from their families.
By the time we put final touches on the exhibition, placing labels and fine-tuning the gallery lighting, it was with the odd feeling that nobody could tell when people would be allowed in to see the results. Mesopotamia, occupying a third of the Villa’s upstairs galleries and perhaps the largest exhibition of Mesopotamian art on the West coast to date, has now been waiting in the wings for months.
Since the exhibition’s installation, antiquities conservators and security staff have been monitoring the galleries regularly. We hope to share Mesopotamia with the public when we are able to safely reopen. Explore the exhibition website, and stay tuned for upcoming stories, virtual talks, and more about Mesopotamia here.