Nine large white vessels hover like clouds above the atrium of a recently restored landmark on the Johns Hopkins University's Homewood campus. The vessels are shaped like vases or Greek amphorae, but they aren't made of clay or porcelain. Instead, they were fabricated with powder-coated steel frames covered by South African shade cloth.
The vessels created by Virginia sculptor Kendall Buster help call attention to Baltimore's newest cultural attraction, the Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum.
The museum is a new feature of Gilman Hall, which opened in 1915 as the home of Hopkins' library and humanities department. Gilman reopened this fall after a three-year, $85 million renovation and modernization. As part of the restoration, all 10 humanities departments are once again based in the building.
The archaeology museum officially opens the weekend of Dec. 4, but Hopkins officials offered a sneak preview this past weekend during rededication ceremonies for Gilman attended by 450 trustees, administrators, faculty members, students and guests.
The event underscored Gilman's significance as Hopkins' home for the humanities. As part of the ceremonies, Hopkins' president, Ronald Daniels, announced that the university would increase by more than $5 million the amount of stipends available over the next five years for graduate students in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences.
"The lofty clock tower and the chimes that ring out on the quarter hour from Gilman Hall are constant and evocative reminders of the signature place the humanities hold in our university and in our world," Daniels said. "In reconsecrating Gilman Hall, we powerfully reaffirm our commitment to the future of the humanities at Johns Hopkins."
The building gained square footage as a result of a decision by Hopkins to take "found space" — a 60-foot by 60-foot light well that had been outdoors — and cover it with a glass skylight to create an atrium at the heart of the building. The light-flooded area has become a meeting place for students and faculty from every department in the school of arts and sciences.
Beneath the atrium is the archaeological museum, with artifacts representing 7,000 years of history. As part of the museum, Hopkins built a climate-controlled laboratory that can be used to prepare items for display and cataloguing. Along with its own collection, Hopkins recently received a loan of decorative art from Eton College in Windsor, England, for research and display over the next 15 years.
Betsy Bryan, director of the museum and Alexander Badawy professor of Egyptian art and archaeology, said the idea of creating a permanent home for Hopkins' archaeological collection grew out of meetings between Hopkins officials and the architects for the restoration, Kliment Halsband Architects of New York. Bryan credited architect Frances Halsband with promoting the idea of creating the museum as a new centerpiece for Gilman Hall. Hopkins now joins Harvard, Princeton and several other American universities with full-fledged archaeological museums.
Bryan said that most of the museum's exhibits would be viewable whenever Gilman Hall is open and that there will be no admission fee. She said she hoped the museum would become a stop for schools and other groups from around the region.
Halsband, the principal in charge of the design team, said that she was "blown away" by Hopkins' collection and that the former light well turned out to be an ideal setting for a permanent display. Also, the atrium and museum give the building a "wow" factor that it didn't have before, she said. "People walk in and they go, 'Ooooohhh.' That was the whole idea."
Halsband said the building itself celebrates nearly 100 years of higher education, while the archaeological collection gave Hopkins an additional 7,000 years of history to celebrate.
"Our initial idea [for the restoration] was traveling through 100 years to the future," she said. "You're a kid coming to Hopkins. You think, 'I'm here in a place of tradition, but I'm also here to invent the future.' " By making the atrium a place where the past and future intersect, she said, "we are at the crossroads of civilization."
The atrium's hanging sculptures, called Vessel Field, reinforce the notion of objects from below ground coming to the surface. Buster, the artist, said she did not literally copy any of the pieces in Hopkins' collection but drew inspiration from them. "There is a sense that they are floating up, levitating," she said.
More than a few participants at the weekend's festivities marveled at how well Gilman Hall's renovation turned out.
"To me it's the most important building on campus," said trustee Constance Caplan. "We really went for excellence. I think it makes such a difference."
Hans Goedicke, a professor emeritus in the Department of Near Eastern Studies who began teaching at Hopkins in 1960, said he was delighted. "It's beautiful," he said of the restoration. "Very fancy. Very impressive."
Senior Michael Szeto said the renovated building was very different from the Gilman Hall he remembers from his freshman year: "The change is so dramatic, it's startling."