Khaznat al-Faroun at Petra, Jordan. Photo taken by Calvin College professor Bert DeVries

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Experience Experience
Return to the PETRA homepage April 4, 2005 - August 15, 2005
Lost City of Stone

About Petra: Why Calvin?

A Gift to the Community

After successful runs in New York City and Cincinnati, why is the acclaimed Petra: Lost City of Stone exhibition coming to Calvin College? And is it a "Calvin-only" event, exclusively for the school's faculty, staff, students and alumni?

  Thank you for a wonderful exhibit.
The answer to the first query — Why Calvin? — takes a little explanation. But the answer to the second query — Only for Calvin? — is a resounding no, says Petra exhibition co-chair June Hamersma.

"This exhibition," she says, "is Calvin's gift to the community. While we certainly have many ties to Petra, and are pleased that we were selected to host the exhibition, we would be most disappointed if people thought that somehow this exhibition was only for Calvin. Our hope is that people will come from far and near to take advantage of this extraordinary opportunity."

As for "Why Calvin?" Petra co-chair and Calvin president Gaylen Byker says that's a fair question.

"This exhibition began at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City," he says, "and now is at the Cincinnati Art Museum. After its run at Calvin it will travel to major museums in Calgary and Ottawa. So, obviously, we are an unusual host for this."

Unusual, Byker adds, but easier to understand when the many Calvin ties to Petra and the Middle East are explained.

Local Connections to the Middle East

Those connections begin with Byker himself, who lived and taught in the Middle East and has visited the Jordanian city of Petra several times.

So when local archaeologist and Calvin graduate Neal Bierling approached Byker last year about bringing Petra to Calvin, Byker's interest was piqued immediately.

In fact, when Bierling first dreamed of bringing Petra to Grand Rapids, he approached two local museums, both of which had conflicts for the spring/summer 2005 dates that Petra was available.

His thoughts then turned to his alma mater, home to not only Byker, but also Bert de Vries, director of the Calvin archaeology minor and a long-time leader of archaeological digs in Jordan.

Bastiaan Van Elderen, Class of '49
Bastiaan Van Elderen '49 stands at the entrance to the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit. Van Elderen played a key role in bringing the scrolls to Grand Rapids.

"I knew that many at Calvin, including Gaylen and Bert, had strong connections to life in the Middle East," says Bierling. "And I was convinced of Calvin's ability to host such a monumental exhibition."

Byker conferred with de Vries (who first visited Petra in 1968 and has returned many times since), and other Middle East experts on campus, and agreed to explore the possibility of bringing Petra: Lost City of Stone to Calvin.

In fact, one of the people he consulted, former Calvin Theological Seminary professor and renowned Middle East archaeologist Bastiaan Van Elderen, passed away recently, and Calvin plans to dedicate the four-and-a-half month exhibit to his life and legacy.

"Bas was very excited about the Petra exhibition coming to the area," says Byker. "His presence will be missed, and dedicating the exhibition to him is a small way for us to honor his remarkable life."

And while mounting a 7,000-squarefoot exhibition consisting of over 200 pieces might be a significant challenge for a liberal arts college, Bierling's belief in Calvin's ability to pull off the trick is not misplaced, if past performances are any indication.

Calvin's Past Performance

In January 2000, for example, the college hosted a national debate between the candidates for the Republican presidential nominee — an event Calvin had just a few weeks to prepare for. That debate saw the college transform its Commons Dining Hall into a media center, issue numerous press credentials, coordinate security between the candidates' staffs (including that of then-Texas-governor George W. Bush) and ultimately host the live debate in front of 1,000 people in the Fine Arts Center and the millions who tuned in on MSNBC, C-SPAN and the local NBC affiliate.

George W. Bush, then governor of Texas, as well as Gary Bauer, Steve Forbes, Orrin Hatch, Alan Keyes and John McCain
On January 10 2000, Calvin College was honored to host the Republican candidates for the presidential nominee.

Other events on campus also regularly test the college's ability to coordinate large-scale projects.

Every January the award-winning January Series presents 15 outstanding lectures in 15 days, bringing to campus such notables as Paul Farmer, Francis Collins, Frank Deford, Charles Krauthammer, Hanan Ashrawi, Henry Louis Gates, Michael Beschloss and more. Those talks, available free of charge to the West Michigan community, are also often shown nationally on C-SPAN. Also in January each year the annual Symposium on Worship brings several thousand people to campus for a series of workshops, lectures, worship services and more. And the bi-annual Festival of Faith & Writing brings thousands to campus every other spring for a weekend of conversation about the Christian faith and its connections to life and literature from such distinguished keynote speakers as Maya Angelou, John Updike and Chaim Potok.

"I think," says Byker with some understatement, "that we've demonstrated a track record at Calvin of taking on significant challenges and meeting them head-on with excellence."

Both Hamersma and Byker are quick to note that Petra: Lost City of Stone will present challenges unlike any the campus has faced before.

New Challenges

The Prince Conference Center, for example, will essentially be retrofitted as a museum. Just two years old, the building's lay-out will be significantly altered to present a clear and logical path through the Petra exhibition. Carpet will be replaced, walls moved, added and painted, new lights installed, museum-quality heating and ventilation added. And the list goes on.

Joel Zwart, director of exhbitions at Calvin
"When you reassemble a traveling exhibit, it's a little bit like working a puzzle." — Joel Zwart

Much of the work will be done in-house by the college's crack crew of electricians, painters, carpenters and skilled tradespeople, headed up by Phil Beezhold, director of the physical plant at Calvin. Calvin's director of hospitality Souzan Karadsheh is organizing not only the Petra premiere, but also a Family Fun Day, four Taste of the Mediterranean events, Middle Eastern music evenings and more.

And Calvin director of exhibitions Joel Zwart will be the on-site curator for “Petra: Lost City of Stone,” working closely with the New York and Cincinnati museums to ensure that the exhibition is installed properly, is secure throughout the exhibition and is de-installed properly at the end of the exhibition. A curator, he says, is a "caretaker" who not only functions to select work for an exhibition, but supervises its care.

Says Zwart: "When you reassemble a traveling exhibit, it's a little bit like working a puzzle. You take all the components, then work to fit them into your unique exhibit space."

But, he notes, six staff members from the New York and Cincinnati museums will be onsite to oversee the installation. And a rigging company will place the exhibition's large stone pieces on their mounts. Then a group of trained individuals will inspect, catalog and arrange the smaller artifacts in display cases.

Experiencing Petra

Calvin also is determined to broaden the Petra experience for its guests beyond the actual exhibition, although the exhibition itself is spectacular, says Hamersma (who saw it in New York).

In fact, the theme for the show is "Experience Petra."

So the college is building a variety of activities around Petra: Lost City of Stone, many of which have distinctive Calvin ties.

Bert de Vries, director of Calvin's archaeology minor, has been visiting the Middle East for over three decades.
Bert de Vries, director of Calvin's archaeology minor, has been visiting the Middle East for over three decades.

De Vries, the history professor and director of the Calvin archaeology minor, will offer a special four-week history course on Petra and the Middle East and a special course for CALL (Calvin Academy for Lifelong Learning). Those courses play into Calvin's role as an educational institution, says Byker, who adds that a better understanding of the Middle East is particularly critical in this age of conflict in the region.

Bierling will do training sessions for local school teachers on how they can bring their classes to Petra and bring Petra to their classes, again, says Byker, as befits Calvin's place in the community as a leading center for education.

Spring break week for local schools will include many special events at Calvin as part of Petra, including on-site digs and such things as pottery-making and more. And the Calvin College Alumni Association will sponsor two local Calvin Around Town events in April centered on Petra, as well as spring dates for alumni chapters in Holland, Kalamazoo, Detroit/Ann Arbor and Lansing and an alumni weekend experience in July.

"By the time the exhibition closes (in August 2005)," says Byker, "we hope many, many people will have had a chance to view the amazing exhibition and also take part in one or more of the events surrounding Petra. This is an opportunity that does not come around often."

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