Alchemical Actors in the Hach Gallery
In the months leading up to the opening of the Museum at CHF’s new exhibit, The Alchemical Quest, Periodic Tabloid will be featuring posts on alchemy and its interpretations, as well as special photo and video previews as the exhibit takes shape. Today Christy Schneider, CHF’s exhibition coordinator, explores designer Keith Ragone’s vision for the exhibit.
For the Hach Gallery exhibit that features rare books from the Othmer Library, The Alchemical Quest, exhibit designer Keith Ragone aims to create a “set design for the actors which are the books.” As actors, books are a most recalcitrant and tiny troupe of thespians that require a sophisticated yet engaging stage set and a lot of direction from a designer, curator and museum staff. Without such creative expertise, book exhibits can frustrate and perhaps bore many visitors, who peer through glass at the one page left open to view.
The satisfaction of holding and flipping pages of a book is surely different from visiting a rare book exhibit. However, with a dynamic but not overpowering design, Ragone’s work invites visitors to fully experience the content and imagery of these historic books. When you enter The Alchemical Quest, you will “meet” the image below, which will be nearly three times your height, as one can see from the visitor represented in the design diagram. This giant scale capitalizes on the 22-foot back wall of the Hach Gallery.
Design document of Keith Ragone, 2012. Featuring image from Figure12, from Quinta Figura, Sexta Figura, Duidecima Figura, Decimateritia. Engraved by Matthias Merian (1593-1650) in Lambsprinck, De lapide philosophic.
Your own alchemical quest begins in the company of these two figures—one with wings and one with earthly armor. Both stand atop a mountain flanked by son and moon. Many images were considered, but this one exemplifies a conversation between opposites that underscores the mixing and shifting of substances in alchemical practice, which led to advances in medicine, mining, distilling, and aspirations toward transmutation.
Each of the exhibit sections—“Chemical Medicine,” “Distilling,” “The Great Work,” “Metallurgy,” and “Secrets and Symbols”—will feature a key image enlarged and printed on the surface of the display table under the books. This is a backdrop for the books, and provides just enough color and imagery to set a tone that compliments and enhances our experience of the books.
Design document of Keith Ragone, 2012. From a panel for the "Chemical Medicine" section of The Alchemical Quest featuring an image of a sick patient being treated. Books will be displayed on top of this panel, in a lighter area to the right of the cropped section seen here.
A third design innovation will be a multi-media interactive developed by Night Kitchen Interactive, in conjunction with Keith Ragone and CHF staff. As visitors turn “pages,” subtle but effective animations and interpretations emerge from a virtual rendition of Pandora (1582), by Epimethus. Flasks reveal their chemical and cosmic contents in a variation of Barchusen’s Elementa chemiae.
To reveal what is “fascinating and mysterious,” about these works, “and to decode and demystify them,” as Keith Ragone describes, is a complex task that requires various methods and dialogue between the exhibit designer, curator, and other staff. Ragone particularly excels conversing with clients and developing design options that present compelling stories and images in the humanities and history of science that are nuanced and might be overlooked.
Christy Schneider is coordinator of exhibitions at CHF. The Alchemical Quest opens July 2 at the Museum at CHF.`
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