Cuneiform tablets, lumps of coal, and a letter written by Brentano

2 April 2015

The research collections held by Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) are to be exhibited publicly for the first time in Mainz City Hall. The universal exhibition "VALUABLES"offers insight into a cross section of various subjects and disciplines. It brings together skulls and prophets, medical instruments and minerals, musical instruments and ancient coins and much more.

The lute was created somewhere in Africa, sometime in the 1970s. A tin canister has been adapted for use as a sound box; the neck has been carved from a light wood. A fairly battered pencil acts as a fret right below a crooked row of simple dowels serving as tuning pegs. Next to it is a plaster cast of a business letter dating back to 2000 B.C. This tablet bearing cuneiform script would easily fit in a child's hand. In it, two merchants from Assyria report back to their headquarters about sanctions on trading in Anatolian goods. "Legal proceedings have been initiated in connection with fabrics. Penalties have been imposed on many people..." There is a large piece of black, sharp-edged bituminous coal that makes the tablet seem small and relatively new in comparison – this chunk of dark rock is 330 million years old.

Dr. Vera Hierholzer darts back and forth between the various display cases. The exhibition is still being arranged. A piece here needs to be moved slightly; over there are Neolithic flint tools that are packed too closely to other artifacts that provide evidence of human activity. "This is far too full, I need to take something out," says the Collection Coordinator of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, turning to an incubator from the Medical History Collection to remove any remaining dust particles. "You can bet that this hasn't been properly sterile for a good while."

Brentano, the Beethoven fan

The exhibition in the Mainz City Hall is the first time that the JGU research collections have been put on general display. The exhibition entitled "VALUABLES"– or "WERTSACHEN" in German – contains a selection of the items that are otherwise used for research and teaching at the university. "The collections represent completely different subjects, epochs, locations, and cultures," stresses Hierholzer, while placing a letter written by German Romantic poet Clemens Brentano in a display case. It begins "My very dearest Beethoven..." and is an original from the Clemens Brentano collection held by the university library.

"Perhaps the designation 'universal museum' would be a bit of an exaggeration," concedes Hierholzer, looking round at the various exhibits. "But you can definitely say that we cover an enormous spectrum." Mainz University houses about 30 collections. The lute comes from the African Music Archives (AMA), the cuneiform writing tablet is a part of the Ancient Near Eastern Teaching Collection, and the lump of coal is an item from the Geosciences Collection.

"The exhibition is an opportunity to create new links and new relationships between objects," says Hierholzer, "It is interdisciplinary in the truest sense of the word." She has put the lute, the cuneiform tablet, a piece of coal, and a glass calorimeter together in a display case labeled "Reusable Materials." "Comparative Values" is her title for another display case. Reproductions of the skull of a mandrill and of a human being are placed side-by-side with the sculpted face of a chubby-cheeked, smiling prophet, the original of which could once be admired in the Reims Cathedral.

New focus on collections

This not the first exhibition Hierholzer has curated. She was involved in an exhibition staged last year to celebrate the 100th birthday of the Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main that used items from that university's collections. The graduate historian was also curator at the Goethe House Museum in Frankfurt and the Museum for Communication; an internship brought her to the Technoseum in Mannheim in 2006.

Last fall she was appointed Collection Coordinator at JGU. "A lot is happening here," says Hierholzer, "we are up and coming." She wants to raise awareness of the collections beyond the Gutenberg Campus, whether in the form of exhibitions like this one or through presentations such as the "Collection Fever" series of talks that is currently being given in the State Museum. However, her plans do not stop there. In addition to her public relations work, she focuses on managing and creating access to the collections. Not all of the pieces are yet ideally stored or displayed on campus. "I want to improve the situation." Work is also being done on identifying the origins and on discussing the nature of the more problematic items. "In the near future, we are planning to hold a workshop on sensitive objects like stolen artifacts and human remains." And there is something she also considers very important: "We need to continue with the digital compilation of the collection."

Nevertheless, it is the opening of the "VALUABLES" exhibition in the Mainz City Hall that currently has her full attention. It was in late 2014 that Hierholzer first submitted her idea for the exhibition to JGU. She was granted funding for new display cases, which are currently being installed in the foyer. "It's a modular system; individual sections can easily be reused in other exhibitions." The collections can thus be more often on display in the city.

The colors of Mainz University

The individual glass cases emit a white glow. They use soft light to illuminate the exhibits. Flexible lamps make it possible to place an additional focus on single items. The color white predominates, only the edges between the stacked exhibition elements have a reddish tint – along with the holders for the explanatory texts next to the individual pieces. JGU's corporate colors shine through in every detail.

The new glass cases themselves are used to create associations between and to interact with the items, while on the walls surrounding them can be seen a systematic presentation of the various university collections. The photographer Thomas Hartmann has captured images of carefully chosen pieces. Also provided are the texts of short interviews with those responsible for each of the collections.

Everything was and right now still is a lot of work – it’s clearly visible in the faces of Hierholzer and her colleagues on the day before the opening of the exhibition. But on the evening when the exhibition is finally opened by Marianne Grosse, who heads Mainz city's cultural department, and Professor Mechthild Dreyer, Vice-President of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, everything becomes worthwhile. The numerous visitors are absolutely fascinated by the selected exhibits presented in the lighted glass cases and the large-format photographs.