When it comes to capturing the public imagination, gigantic dinosaurs are a tough act to follow but “Mesopotamia,” the new special exhibit at the ROM, aims to do just that. Mesopotamia was one of the cradles of civilization. The Sumerians, Assyrians, and Babylonians called it home in an area that corresponds to present-day Iraq and Syria.
These are the people who literally invented the wheel — which, as I take it, was their version of the best thing since sliced bread. In translation, the word Mesopotamia means “the land between two rivers.” The civilizations there arose between the giant rivers Tigris and Euphrates. Conveniently, images of the rivers are laid on the floor throughout the ROM exhibit, making walking through it a Wizard of Oz-esque “follow the blue brick road” experience.
The gallery begins with a large and monolithic white rectangle that serves as its mainstay. The rectangles all deal with a particular theme, using animation or speakers on TV screens to explain concepts that were important in Mesopotamia, such as inventions or writing. Seated primarily in customary glass cases are pieces of pottery, tablets and other ancient knick-knacks. The whole gallery is lit like a cave, and the remarkable artisanship of the objects is captivating.
Of course, every great exhibit needs a showstopper, and Mesopotamia has them in its reliefs. Epic stories sculpted on gargantuan stone tablets, the reliefs are the closest you can get to actually experiencing the great cultures of Mesopotamia. From great battles to lion fights, the reliefs offer the ancient version of movie-going to their viewers. One of the heroes of the whole gallery, and something I did not expect, was the visual media. As with the excellent Ultimate Dinosaurs exhibit, Mesopotamia features interactive screens and videos partnered with the exhibits to relay captivating stories about the stone beneath. Granted, taking the already impressive reliefs and trying to make them better with video seems like it could go terribly wrong, like post-production 3D, but instead it only serves to make the objects come to life in the best way possible.
Nebuchadnezzar, Gilgamesh, and Hammurabi: these unwieldy names belong to some of the greatest leaders in history, and it was a personal joy to see artifacts bearing their stories in the gallery. Although I’m personally more of a dinosaur guy, it was nonetheless fascinating to see the wide collection of items and stories from ancient human history brought together. Whether you know the history, enjoy art and culture, or just want a unique way to spend an afternoon, the Mesopotamia gallery is worth a look.
Going beyond both the limitations of the space it is exhibited in and the relative scarcity of actual objects (presumably, taking a loan on things from 5,000 years ago is harder than visiting the library), the gallery is both visually and culturally stunning — an all-around excellent addition to the ROM.