An Exhibit Librarian’s Adventure in Milan

Guest post by Meg Brown, the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation Exhibits Librarian. She traveled this year to Boston and Washington, D.C., looking for inspiration for the new library exhibit cases that will be installed as part of the Rubenstein Library renovation. She recently returned from a trip to Italy to review prototypes of the exhibition cases being designed especially for Duke University Libraries by the Italian firm Goppion.

Alessandro Goppion
Alessandro Goppion demonstrates the features of the display case. All photos by Meg Brown.

In preparation for our upcoming renovation, I’ve enjoyed looking at exhibit cases all over the United States. But this past March I took the ultimate journey. Along with architect Robert Peirce from Shepley Bulfinch and contractor Will Whittington from Lend Lease, I visited OUR new exhibit cases—in Milan, Italy!

The man in the picture to the left is Alessandro Goppion, an inspirational craftsman and designer, as he explains the mechanisms of our prototype.  Goppion and his company have spent years perfecting the art and engineering of exhibit case design. (They designed the cases for the Mona Lisa in the Louvre and the Crown Jewels in the Tower of London, among other high-profile artifacts and works of art.) The case shown here will make a perfect environment for our rare, complete set of John James Audobon’s Birds of America, which after the renovation will be permanently on display in the library!

Because Goppion is designing our cases specifically for some complicated spaces, an important part of the design process is a review of prototypes. For two days our team worked with their engineers and technicians to look at every detail—how the doors open and close, where the glass meets the millwork, where the light will shine on the books, how the shelving standards will affect the display possibilities. It was a fascinating process. Every question

Meg with one of our new display cases!

we raised was answered, and over the course of two days on-site, the Goppion staff made changes to the prototypes while we went on frequent coffee breaks. The new exhibit spaces in the Rubenstein Library are going to be spectacular—I can’t wait to see our new cases in place! In 2015, there will be a miniature Italian invasion when a group of craftsman from Goppion will come to the library to spend weeks installing these cases, until every door, shelf, and light bulb is perfect.

Did I leave the Goppion warehouse and explore Italy? What kind of exhibit librarian would I be if I didn’t? I managed a quick tour of the Milan Duomo (currently undergoing a renovation far more dramatic than ours!), as well as a quick tour of the Sforza Castle before our first day of work. After two days of prototyping, I visited the University of Padua, where Emilia and Maurizio Rippa Bonati (professor of the history of medicine and a past co-curator of the Duke University Libraries exhibit on anatomical flap books) showed me some amazing anatomy books and took me on a tour of the legendary 16th-century anatomical theater, the first of its kind in the world.

The legendary anatomical theater (the world’s oldest) at the University of Padua.

After Padua I traveled to Venice, where I saw as many exhibitions as my feet would allow. All of the museums in St. Mark’s Square were pure gold. I left with inspirations for new and different ways to exhibit our library collection materials and relate them to a general audience. (How fun to step back for a moment and see exhibits through the casual observer’s eyes!) At the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, I had the opportunity to see Venice through a 19th-century American’s perspective with an exhibit that included materials from Constance Fenimore Woolson, a once-famous novelist. I also encountered the most beautiful maps and globes I’ve ever seen! It was a productive and wonderful adventure.

Come and see us in the fall of 2015 to see how it all turns out in the new library exhibition spaces!