IT’S the stuff of dreams.
You go into a hastily called meeting on a Friday afternoon and are told to have your bags packed and arrive in Rome by Monday morning.
From there you’re whisked off behind the scenes of the Vatican Museum and given carte blanche to choose whatever rare antiquities you may wish to display.
That was the incredible scenario for a young Julian Bickersteth back in 1987, tasked with curating the Pavilion of the Holy See at Brisbane’s World Expo 88.
Mr Bickersteth (pictured) was working as the Powerhouse Museum’s conservator at the time and already had hands full with a Captain Cook and other Bicentenary-themed exhibitions.
He vividly recalls being phoned and invited to fly up and meet with key expo figures Sir Llew Edwards and John Truscott.
“They were apologetic and said ‘this has all been left rather late but we need to get you over to the Vatican to select these objects so we can start planning’,” Mr Bickersteth said.
“So a group of us were despatched to Rome where we met the director of the Vatican Museums, the lovely Dr Walter Persegati, and also his offsider – a very affable American woman called Dr Patricia Bonnecati.
“They said ‘what we’ve got planned for this week is to show you all that you could potentially take out to Brisbane, plus the things we’d particularly like for you to take’.
“These included a very early map showing Terra Australis, and also other things that related to Australia.”
The delegation enjoyed an extraordinary week.
In spite of being January and cold, there were blue skies and few tourists around.
They were immersed in the glories of the Vatican with the added advantage of a chance to peek behind the scenes.
“I particularly remember going to the Sistine Chapel when it was closed, and while I have been there on many occasions it’s the only time I’ve stood in the middle with only just three or four others, gazing at that astonishing ceiling,” Mr Bickersteth said.
“Within the chapel is a little door, which we were taken through and up a winding staircase into a vestry area lined with beautiful seventeenth century walnut cupboards, out of which were pouring all these incredible vestments, with some chosen as exhibits.”
Mr Bickersteth’s own background is Anglican.
His father John was Bishop of Bath and Wells in the 1970s and 1980s, so being surrounded by church artefacts wasn’t unfamiliar.
He also had read theology at Christ Church, Oxford, before moving to Australia in 1979, further adding to his suitability.
Certainly the Vatican Museum couldn’t have been more generous in what they offered to the expo.
“They were lavishing things upon us … I honestly don’t remember having them say no at all. They were more like ‘that can come, that can come’,” Mr Bickersteth said.
“The task then became sorting through what treasures we had gleaned and displaying them to best effect.
“For this phase we worked extremely closely with acclaimed exhibition designer Desmond Freeman.
“It was he who solved the puzzle of how to turn what is literally a steel box into a special area where you can display these amazing things.
“He put in place a nave using a pattern of the marble floor from the famed St Maria Maggiore in Rome, then the columns down the side enabled some great spaces to run off it.
“The recreation of that great marble floor was done in linoleum, which was just brilliant, and the columns were all cardboard concrete formed.
“That created the central space for the exhibition and then we went off in various directions and criss-crossed over with all these beautiful objects throughout.”
In early 1988 the Qantas plane cargo hold was disgorging a trove of wonderful thrones and altar frontals, tapestries, renaissance marbles, paintings, pectoral crosses and copes.
It was such a priceless cache it still astonishes the curator 30 years later.
“The depth of that collection was just extraordinary; right through to a beautiful gold-and-silver model of St Peter’s, early mosaics, a wonderful sculpture of the Good Shepherd and reliquary boxes,” he said.
“There were also some things Desmond spotted which were spectacular but seemingly not very important.
“One such item was an enormous celestial globe by Giovanni Antonio Vanosino, which sits on a great gilt base with an eagle holding it up.”
The installation team worked around the clock almost up until the April 30 opening date.
Understandably the set-up of a temporary structure isn’t ideal for the conservator or curator.
“Normally you are dealing with a permanent building so there’s a good environment,” Mr Bickersteth said.
“In our case the air conditioning was going off and on and I still remember people wandering around with barrows full of cement in front of these priceless treasures.
“It was all a bit hairy and down-to-the-wire, but there were no mishaps I’m glad to say.”
Once opened, the pavilion became one of expo’s most visited sites.
Mr Bickersteth remembers it as a magical place.
“I think it was right in the middle so it had a wonderful position, and visitors enjoyed the quietness of it,” he said.
“People commented specifically that you came in and immediately there was the replica of Michaelangelo’s Pieta, beautifully lit.
“Suddenly it was all quietness, stillness and hushed voices, whereas a lot of the other pavilions were in your face and designed as such.
“Of course we had a lovely soundtrack of the Vatican choir singing, so after all the bustle of outside it was lovely to come in and see beautiful things.”
The original copy of the night manager’s log, held in Brisbane Archdiocesan Archives, shows daily visitor numbers routinely tallying 7000 or higher.
Mr Bickersteth said a good yardstick for judging a blockbuster exhibition in a museum was 3500 visitors per day, so this was exceptional.
The directors of the Vatican Museums were also pleased by the reception.
Alas the dream run came to an end too soon with World Expo’s closure on October 30, 1988.
Likewise an exhibition that had taken painstaking months to establish was packed, crated and ready for return to Rome within a fortnight.
Mr Bickersteth went back to Sydney, but maintained contact with the Vatican Museum and came close to succeeding with subsequent proposals for other exhibitions.
“The relationship is still strong and I’ve been there a number of times and seen it’s a wonderful collection in a very good state,” he said.
“Having worked closely with them, I know how they do use the income coming from the millions that visit the Vatican galleries and museums each year wisely, and it goes straight back into looking after the collections.
“They see the importance of preserving this critical part of their heritage.”
By Adrian Taylor