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Crossing Borders

Last night was the opening reception for Crossing Borders, the show of exquisite medieval manuscripts at the Jewish Museum that MESH designed. The material is fascinating, as it embodies the crossing over of cultural influences among Jews, Muslims, and Christians at a rare time of relative harmony among the European religions. The illumination of Kennicott Bible, an amazingly preserved Hebrew Bible on parchment, shows Islamic influence. 

We were challenged to light the manuscripts at a very low level to prevent damage. They are from the Bodleian Library at Oxford and are rarely displayed at all. I also wanted people to really look at them, to avoid that feeling one gets often at the Met where there are so many objects that they blur together as one walks by.

For our first exhibition design we took 3 distinct risks.

Spatially, I wanted large displays in the center of the room vs. smaller cases around the perimeter. This was both for the scale impact and the social effect of visitors clustered around a large display, not unlike the Apple store(!). The vitrines themselves are steel and walnut, with acrylic "bonnets." Displaying the mss on untreated, milled steel sheet emphasizes the material quality. No fabric, which is industry standard for such cases. The vitrines have scissor steel legs to imply migration/movement, as a folding display case.

I wanted to show other pages of the mss in addition to the opening on display. iPads are perfect for this. The iPad resolution is astonishing -- we have never experienced a display this good. They are slim, self-contained (computer+display) devices. And as the pre-eminent form of the book today, the iPad presents a satisfying way to experience a thousand-year-old book--intimate, tactile. Strangely, "kiosk" readers are a black hole in the app store. There is one serious app that allows for browsing images and preventing users from leaving to check facebook -- Kiosk Pro -- and it is unreliable. We were fortunate that Mark Collins and Jeff Kenoff of Morpholio agreed to make a custom version of their app for us on very short notice. The museum commissioned a full photo capture of the Kennicott Bible, and the entire 922 pages are viewable on 5 iPads in the show.

The lighting: I loved the idea of dynamic lighting for the mss. We have worked a lot with programmable LEDs. I have been intrigued by the new generation of LED-powered media projectors, which are tiny and powerful. For the show I thought, why not use projectors to control the light precisely? This would allow highlighting of specific passages, say, when a visitor touched a spot on the nearby iPad. However, it quickly became clear that this was overreaching--next time. The projectors, one per vitrine, enable us to trim the light precisely to the shapes of the objects and labels. The stark contrast makes the requisite low light levels appear brighter. And the mss assume a glowing aura that draws us in to each one. 


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