By BARBARA BRYANT
Since Jan. 8, the "Rome Reborn" exhibition has brought thousands of visitors to admire this unique collection of rare books, manuscripts and maps from the Vatican Library's archives, as well as its setting -- the newly renovated Great Hall.
However, as guests move among the more than 40 cases cases that protect these Renaisannce treasures, most will never notice or learn about one of the exhibition's more subtle works of art: the cases themselves.
Equipped with a variety of climate-control, safety and specialized lighting features, these display cases represent a yearlong design and installation project involving architects, conservators, security experts and installation professionals.
The Library hired Franklin Street Communications to coordinate various teams of experts to work on the project; the firm designed the cases in association with designer Keith McPeters of Michael Graves Architects in Princeton, N.J., to design the cases, and called in Exhibits Unlimited in Richmond, Va., to construct and install them. Franklin Street also was responsible for the typography used on such things as banners. Chapman Ducibelle, a security engineering firm, and conservation consultant Shelley Paine were consultants to the design- installation team. The cases are a gift from the Charles Engelhard Foundation.
"It was a challenging project," Mr. McPeters recalled. "The Library wanted the final product that would be built to serve not just as display cases but as modular furniture, to be moved around at will. The finished product had to do justice to their magnificent surroundings and the Vatican artifacts, but without distracting visitors' attention from the items themselves."
But the challenge did not end there. Those involved had to design the cases without seeing any of the Vatican treasures that would arrive from Rome only a few weeks before the exhibition opened. Instead, they relied on photos, descriptions and reported measurements of the collection -- which ranged from small books to huge maps -- to estimate specifications for each case.
The results are impressive. Constructed of high-density fiberboard with poplar framework, the outside of the cases are curly maple in a combination of hardwoods and veneer finished in solid curly maple at the edges and corners.
To protect the artifacts from environmental hazard, the installers covered the interior with with liquid sealant followed by special aluminum foil to prevent outgassing (vapors escaping from the wood that could harm the fragile collection). The cases are climate-controlled, and the base has shelves filled with five pounds of silica gel to keep the interior humidity at about 55 percent. Five pounds of charcoal filter the air. (The cases were constructed to prevent any exposure to outside air.)
The treasures are protected by thick double walls, one-half-inch- thick glass and a security system that includes noise and motion detectors and a central alarm system connected with wires to each case. Exhaust fans were installed at the top to prevent heat buildup, and each has adjustable track lighting. The off-white panels framed by the wood above the glass are thin sheets of onyx marble.
The largest cases are 8 feet by 8 feet and weigh more than a half ton, making it impossible to fit them through the doorways of the Jefferson Building. Instead, installers used a hydraulic lift to hoist them up the outside of the building and through windows on the second floor.
"There were a lot of logistical difficulties to deal with," admitted John Crank, owner of Franklin Street Communications. "But what could have been the project from hell turned out to be the project from heaven, thanks in large part to the assistance and professionalism of the Library of Congress personnel who worked with us throughout. Along with working together right from the beginning with our own security and conservation consultants --which is rare; usually they're brought in at the end of a job, which can result in changes and headaches -- we had outstanding help and expertise from from Protective Services, the Conservation Office, Interpretive Programs, and Declan Murphy, [project director], and Elizabeth Wulkan, [project coordinator], who helped smooth out a lot of wrinkles along the way. The Library administration gave us a lot of freedom in getting the job done, and it was a pleasure to work on the project."
"It was a very exciting project," Mr. McPeters agreed. "Exhibition design is like theater. Once you put it all together you have 'dress rehearsal.'
"In this case it was very much like a dress rehearsal since we had to wait until the last minute to actually place the items in their cases and see if our measurements -- and expectations -- anticipated the final result. Then you have 'opening night.'"
Designed to serve not merely as exhibition equipment but as movable furniture, the cases may be kept in the Great Hall after the Vatican exhibition closes and reconfigured and adapted for other displays to come. They are proof of the importance the Library attaches to this extraordinary exhibition and represent a unique combination of specialized design, technology and craftsmanship that may preserve and compliment other exhibitions in the future.