The Dead Sea Scrolls are immeasurable in their cultural and philosophical significance. Physically slight, fragile, and fugitive, the scrolls deserve display with an uncommon design sensibility—one that does not consider the quality of beauty as belonging only to the eyes. The Royal Ontario Museum’s Exhibits & Design Department based its design of the temporary exhibition on best communicating the context, content, and spiritual resonance of the scrolls.
The installation mediated between the scale of the artifacts (the largest being an architectural cornice fragment) and the exhibition hall—19 000 sq. ft., with 16-ft. ceilings. It also presented a large amount of interpretive text, with translations and points of significance, in balance with numerous small artifacts.
The exhibition path was carefully considered to feel obvious and natural, while providing a sense of anticipation and drama. Technical requirements included strict light levels, climate-controlled casework, high security, and attention to visitor safety, particularly for large groups. Durability of materials was also a concern for the six-month exhibition. Repurposed casework and millwork comprised 75% of the exhibition. Extensive use of fabric walls eliminated the energy and waste typically generated with solid materials.
The design team represented the fragmentary nature of the scrolls metaphorically using the motif of the arc, a fragment of a circle standing for a greater whole. This form shaped the space, articulating the key areas within the hall. Throughout the exhibit, the many types of texts —section demarcations, section introductions, case overviews, and case labels—were given distinctive treatments. This structured and paced the exhibition content, allowing the design team to explore a variety of materials and scales. Three-dimensional section headlines were 12-ft.-high. Texts were silkscreened directly onto the exhibit’s curved canvas introductory wall, as well as on textured wallcovering chosen to convey the landscape of sand and stone from which the scrolls originated. Both treatments were prototyped to ensure full legibility. The arc motif integrated the text and 3D elements, the rag of the text echoing the line of the metalwork.
The design team chose a modern typeface, Hoefler Text, and contrasted it with a spirited old-style font, Hoefler Tilting. These classic faces were paired with the sans serif typeface Whitney, chosen for its clarity and legibility. Various type sizes and weights conveyed a hierarchy of information, segregated the mass of information, and reinforced continuity.
Large-scale images defined each section and contextualized the artifacts on display. Nine audio-visual elements were knitted into the exhibition experience. Soundscapes of song and recitation further engaged visitors with the material. Ultimately, the design resisted a literal or historicist interpretation. Its intention was to educate the visitor by privileging the scholarship, stimulating the senses, and evoking history with eloquence.
The project was developed over a period of 10 months, with fabrication and installation taking two months. All interpretive text was provided in English and French.
“Beautiful use of materials, proportions, and color to convey a message.”
Dave Hollands (staff architect, head of design), Seema Hollenberg (project manager), Luciana Calvet (lead exhibit designer, 3D), Domenica Sforza (lead exhibit designer, graphics), David Sadler (exhibit designer, scrolls casework and climate control), Bob Walsh (lighting designer), Risa Levitt Kohn (curator), Dan Rahimi (curatorial and project consultant), Steven Spencer (interpretive planner), Rob McMahon (story/creative producer, A/V), Gene Sanzo (design technologist), Helen Coxon (lead conservator)
The Mitchell Partnership (mechanical consulting engineers)
MCM 2001 (general contractor, millworker), Ontario Staging (theatrical scrim), Art Signs (3D signage elements), Screen Art (silkscreening, vinyl letters, digital prints), Emerson Group (large-format printing/murals)