Art & Museums

Focus On: The Oriental Institute Museum at University of Chicago at 100

Oriental Institute Museum. Photo: Marielle Bokor

Is 100 years a long time? Maybe not geologically, but it is longer than an average lifetime. Here in the US, things that hit the century mark are often celebrated, since we’re only a few centuries old as a nation ourselves. Still, compared to ancient civilizations, or even in terms of European nations, it’s hardly a drop in the bucket. And yet, to accomplish a century of research, preservation and education is a noteworthy achievement, whether here or anywhere else in the world. 

Oriental Institute Museum. Photo: Marielle Bokor

That’s exactly what the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute Museum has achieved. Founded in 1919, the Oriental Institute Museum boasts a beautiful, comprehensive and contextual collection of artifacts dating back to the very earliest civilizations. Visitors to the Oriental Institute at the University have the unique privilege of being able to experience the rich history of places that money and privilege event today can’t get you–places like Iraq, Iran, Syria, Turkey, and Afghanistan. It’s a region of the world where history is often washed away by the ravages of conflict, its stories and cultural treasures lost to time. 

Oriental Institute Museum. Photo: Marielle Bokor

Stepping into the halls of the Oriental Institute Museum is like stepping back in time, to the beginnings of things. And not just the beginning of things for civilizations long gone–the beginning of everything. The Oriental Institute Museum boasts examples of the beginnings of the written word and mathematics. 

Oriental Institute Museum. Photo: Marielle Bokor

It’s not only the age and pricelessness of these incredibly ancient artifacts. Something that sets the Oriental Institute Museum apart from many other museums, including some of those right here in Chicago, is that most of its collection is directly sourced–much of the 350,000 artifacts possessed by OI were excavated by their own archaeologists over the past 100 years. 

Oriental Institute Museum. Photo: Marielle Bokor

This brings a great sense of place and context to the exhibit halls as you walk them. Since the artifacts were largely excavated by the museum’s archaeologists, there’s more detail on where they were found, and what purpose they served. Objects found at the same place can be placed together, giving you as a visitor a greater understanding and sense of place. 

Oriental Institute Museum. Photo: Marielle Bokor

Permanent galleries take you on a journey to ancient Egypt, Nubia, Persia, Mesopotamia, Syria, Anatolia and the Levant–and the amount of wonderful things is simply stunning–from large scale reliefs and statuary to tiny and complex ceramics and carvings. In addition, the museum boasts some of the world’s foremost research on ancient languages, with OI founder James Henry Breasted having initiated work on the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary, a laborious endeavor that took 90 years to come to fruition, which unlocked the mysteries of a language that hasn’t been spoken for 2000 years. 

Oriental Institute Museum. Photo: Marielle Bokor

In addition to the regular permanent exhibits, stunning in their own right, and recently reinstalled after a just completed renovation,  the Oriental Institute has pulled out all the stops for the centennial celebration they kicked off in September. In fact, 500 never before seen artifacts are on display, and range from huge reliefs from Persepolis to beautiful new ancient Egyptian wonders, and brand new exhibition space dedicated to the history of Islam and the OI at 100. 

 Some of the most interesting of these features include the contemporary artists displaying important works within the halls of the museum. 

Oriental Institute Museum. Photo: Marielle Bokor

aeon by Ann Hamilton is a particularly imposing and interesting piece for the museum. It involves the entirety of the Grant Reading Room of the Joe and Rika Mansueto Library’s dome, and uses old school scanners to explode the scale of the museum’s artifacts and present them in light and shadow on the dome itself. This exhibit has special hours, so make sure to click here to check when you can see it.

Oriental Institute Museum. Photo: Marielle Bokor

Michael Rakowitz’s work at the Oriental Institute speaks to the erasure of ancient treasures. In his work, he recreates the rest of a relief from the Northern Iraqi palace at Nimrud, which was destroyed by ISIS’ forces in 2015, using a piece of the original palace relief, and rebuilding the larger picture with pieces of everyday life in Iraq–newspapers, food wrappers, and the like, for a colorful but impactful negative of what’s been lost.

Oriental Institute Museum. Photo: Marielle Bokor

New for this centennial year is the installation of the institute’s first interpreter-in-residence, Mohamad Hafez, whose beautiful sculptural work speaks to the displacement and destruction of war in Syria. His works are deeply personal and transport you straight to the heart of the place he called home, and, he admits, finds himself homesick for, and speaks to the despair of losing some of that place to unrest. 

Oriental Institute Museum. Photo: Marielle Bokor

There are tons of great events focused on the Oriental Institute’s centennial that will help you get acquainted or reacquainted with this Chicago treasure, and you’d be wise not to miss them. Upcoming for October, is an Indiana Jones Film Festival, set for next weekend, gallery talks, the final weeks of Ann Hamilton’s aeon, and Halloween events for the whole family, whether it’s an adults only trip out to Mummies and Martinis on October 24th or a trip with the kids on Saturday, October 26th for “Mummies Night: 100 Years of Mummies” which will be much more kid-friendly.

Oriental Institute Museum. Photo: Marielle Bokor

The Oriental Institute is a true Chicago treasure, and something worth celebrating, in its centennial and in general–for the beautiful, carefully excavated and contextualized world treasures. There’s truly something for everyone to experience here–whether you’re new to the museum entirely or have been haunting the halls for years now, and that makes it imperative that you schedule a visit in the near future to explore the ancient past.

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