After two and a half years as mount maker at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Edray native Matt Gay went on his first international trip to Turkey to acquire artifacts for an exhibit.
Along with a couple of colleagues, Gay spent two weeks in Turkey, traveling to four museums and a dig site to take stock of items which will be on loan to the Penn Museum for one year.
“The exhibit we’re putting together is all about this one site called Gordium,” he said. “It’s where Midas was. Gordium was the capitol of Phrygia and Midas ruled the Phrygians. The Turkish government is loaning us a bunch of artifacts from Gordium to be on display in Philadelphia for a year.”
Gay said he and two of his bosses went over to look at the objects to figure out how they would design an exhibit around them – to measure them and help bring together the story they want to tell about all the objects.
During his time in Turkey, Gay stayed in Instanbul, but traveled all over the country to visit the museums in possession of the artifacts.
“The artifacts were in four different museums around the country,” he said. “We were at a museum in Istanbul called the Istanbul Archeology Museum, and then we went to Ankara which is the capitol of Turkey. It’s kind of in the middle of the country and that’s where most of the stuff was. They have the big museum in Ankara called the Museum of Anatolian Nations. It tells you the whole story of the people who have been in Turkey. That’s where a lot of the Phrygian artifacts were.
“From there, we went out to the actual dig in Gordium,” he continued. “There’s another museum there and stuff we had to look at there. Then from there we went down to Antalya which is on the Mediterranean. There was another museum there.”
The exhibit will consist of 130 items from Turkey and 30 items owned by the University of Pennsylvania, which operates the Penn Museum.
The majority of the items are from a burial mound, known as the tumulus Midas mound, or tumulus MM. The mound was first investigated by archeologist Rodney Young of the University of Pennsylvania.
“He was the first one to really try to figure out what’s in this mound,” Gay said. “Essentially, to boil it down, it was a log cabin that was then covered up with dirt. The mound is huge. It’s like a hundred feet high. It’s massive. The way I understand it is that, the cabin doesn’t sit square in the middle of the mound. It’s kind of offset as another security precaution of sorts. You can’t just dig straight in, so my understanding is that he was on top of the mound and he was just basically drilling in different points until he hit something that was interesting. Then when he thought he hit something, he hired some Turkish coal miners to come in and dig a tunnel into where he thought it was.”
Inside the log cabin, archeologists found what they believed to be a burial with items which were probably used for a feast or for offerings.
“It’s a whole lot of bronze bowls, big huge cauldrons, bronze cauldrons,” Gay said. “A lot of ceramics, some terra cotta, decorative terra cotta from Gordium buildings. There’s a little bit of gold. I don’t know the content of it, so I can’t tell you if they were grave offerings. I think there was food in these bowls and they were arrayed out on tables. I don’t know if it was an afterlife thing.”
Although the exhibit is still in the planning stages, Gay knows it will include several interactive elements, including a digital reconstruction of the log cabin which allows viewers to have a first person interaction with the site in the comfort of the Penn Museum.
Gay added an extra week of pure vacation on to the two work-related weeks just to take in the sights and sounds of Turkey.
“You’ve got to realize it sits on the Bosphorus Strait, so the western side of the Bosphorus is Europe and the eastern side is Asia,” he said. “It’s where two continents come together, so I spent a lot of time just walking around Istanbul. You’ve got the Hagia Sophia there, which is the biggest church in all of Christendom for probably at least a thousand years. You’ve got mosques all over the place, dating back hundreds and hundreds of years, done by different architects. So you can go see how one guy designed one and how another guy designed one. They’re absolutely stunning. They’re incredible places.”
As mount maker, Gay is the person who is tasked with finding a way to display the artifacts without damaging them and without making an eyesore out of the display.
“You have your content people and you also have your exhibit designers that will look at everything and figure out an aesthetic way to turn the story into a design and then you have me,” he said. “In the museum world you have mount makers and preparers and they’re the ones who actually take the design off the paper and make it into reality. ‘This is how you want it to look? Great. I’ll make it do that.’ I work a lot with metal, brass and steel, and soldering and welding.
“I work a lot with conservators because these objects are nearly three thousand years old,” he continued. “They’ve got issues, so if you want these things hanging off a wall, there’s certain things you have to take into account. You can’t just wrap a string around it and suspend it. It’s got to have some kind of good support, and you have to balance that thing you make. You don’t want it to be big and in your face and obscuring the artifacts. The idea is my work is not to be seen.”
Becoming a mount maker was not Gay’s initial plan, but sometimes, you just get led in the right direction. He attended Shepherd University where he earned a degree in history. After graduating, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do. He liked the idea of working in museums, though he didn’t know where to begin.
“I didn’t want to go to graduate school, at least, not right away, and I didn’t have any experience doing anything, so a woman I was working with, she said, ‘you should go volunteer at the National Park Service in Harper’s Ferry,’” he recalled. “That’s what I did. Luckily I had a really good boss at the time and he let me go. Every other Friday I’d leave a little bit early and go over, and just do some stuff with the park service. That was how I learned how to handle artifacts.”
While at the park service, Gay was part of some conservation work down at the museum at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
“This place with the parks service, they do conservation work for all the artifacts that belong to the parks service,” he said. “They had done conservation work on the saddle cover that Abraham Lincoln sat on when he got off the train to deliver the Gettysburg Address. I carved out a piece of foam for it so it would sit there and that was kind of my moment where I was like, ‘oh this is it. I want to find a way to work with stuff like this.’”
Gay found a mount making company and got a job which lasted three years.
“It was like an apprenticeship,” he said. “You start at the bottom and you do the stuff nobody else wants to do. You go through months and months of that and then when they see that you’re serious, they’re like ‘well come work on the neat things.’”
In those three years, Gay lived out of a suitcase as he traveled around the country, doing mount making jobs for museums in places like Fairbanks, Alaska; Tampa, Florida; New York City; the B.B. King Museum in Mississippi; and the Nascar Hall of Fame in Charlotte, North Carolina.
After the Charlotte job, the business owner closed up shop, so Gay stayed in Charlotte for a while where he worked for a frame shop and a book conservator.
“I saw a job posting in Philadelphia at the Penn Museum and I applied for it, and got it,” he said. “I uprooted myself and headed up to Philly. I’ve been there ever since. That was May of 2013. Philly’s great, actually. It’s a great city. I feel pretty fortunate to be there.”
After his experience in Turkey, Gay said he is up for more work-related trips, as well as a return to Turkey, in the future.
“I’d go back to Turkey in a heartbeat, absolutely,” he said. “There’s still a lot more to see over there. If we have any other big loans like this, sure, yes, sign me up. I’ll travel for work. I’m all in.”
The Gordium exhibit will open February 13, 2016 and will be open until December.
For more information on the Penn Museum and exhibits Gay works with, visit www.penn.museum
Suzanne Stewart may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org