Currently on display at the Birmingham Museum of Art (BMA) is a truly one-of-a-kind collection of hand-painted porcelain dinnerware, featuring the portraits of more than 100 hippos. Porcelain may not seem like an obvious choice for an art exhibition geared toward children, but the BMA’s Curator of Education, Samantha Kelly, explained how the Museum’s presentation of the “Hippopotamus Service” is both fun and educational for families.
“One of the things we wanted to do was diversify and grow our audience,” she said. “There weren’t a lot of kids or families in the Museum, so this [exhibition] is the culmination of a three or four year adventure in changing the Museum into a family-friendly place.”
The exhibition, called Hip, Hippo, Hooray!, focuses on the story and the animal behind the dinner service. The dishes are the prized possession of Richard Baron Cohen – no relation to comic provocateur Sacha – a New York businessman and avid collector of porcelain, particularly antique pieces.
“He loves porcelain,” Kelly said. “As a collector, he wanted something no one else had or could get. … He commissioned an entire dinner service, which probably hasn’t happened in about 100 years.”
The service includes 144 individually painted pieces of porcelain dinnerware, including plates, bowls, serving platters, coffeepots, tea cups, an ice dome and more – enough altogether to accommodate a five-course dinner for 18 people. Each piece is a work of art in its own right, featuring a hippopotamus portrait framed by intricate floral and gold designs.
Each portrait is unique, handpicked by Cohen from more than 3,000 pictures taken by photographer Sarah Louise Galbraith. In 2003, Cohen hired Galbraith to spend a year traveling to more than 100 zoos and preserves around the world, capturing thousands of images of hippos. Cohen then commissioned the Royal Copenhagen Porcelain Manufactory in Denmark to turn his favorite photos into the porcelain collection of his dreams.
“They had to pull their master porcelain painter [Jørgen Nielsen] out of retirement,” said Kelly. Nielsen spent over three years painstakingly rendering the hippos’ images onto porcelain. Cohen was involved in every step of the process, choosing even the small floral embellishments on the dishes. In 2007, the collection was finally complete.
Hip, Hippo, Hooray! presents the Hippo Service in a child-friendly way, with information plaques that also include questions and facts about the star animal. World maps showing the locations that Galbraith visited to take her photos even incorporate a little geography.
“We always look for exhibitions that complement our collection or offer something we can’t show,” Kelly says. “In this case, it’s both.”
It was the BMA’s Curator of Decorative Arts, Dr. Anne Forschler-Tarrasch, who discovered Cohen’s collection of hippo-themed porcelain, Kelly said. The museum features an extensive collection of ceramic art, and the Hippo Service is certainly at home in that respect. However, by incorporating interactive programs such as “Hippo Adventures,” the Museum allows families to experience the exhibition in what curators hope will be an engaging way.
“Hippo Adventures” takes place weekly at 10:30 a.m. on Tuesdays and provides a tour of the exhibition in addition to activities such as scavenger hunts, art projects, and having guests make hippo sounds and walk around like pods of hippos. Children in kindergarten through the 5th grade can draw their own hippo dish and then submit the drawing for the chance to win an all-expense paid trip to Disney World – Cohen himself is sponsoring the competition. Guests can also stop by Bart’s ArtVenture!, a hands-on, interactive gallery for families that provides the opportunity to “step into a hippo painting” using green screen technology for a Hip, Hippo, Hooray! souvenir.
“I hope this is the first of many more art exhibitions that we are able to host geared toward families,” Kelly said. She wants exhibitions like Hip, Hippo, Hooray! to help “demystify the museum experience” for visitors, allowing them to feel comfortable in the museum setting and connect with the art in a personal, rather than purely historic or academic, way.
The exhibition itself is in the Arrington Gallery, nestled between the BMA’s permanent American and European galleries on the second floor, and will be on display until June 16, 2013.