Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Flashback 1994: Catalog a Big Order At Oriental Institute

Not a closet at the OI, but "Untitled,"
by Jannis Kounellis, at the Hirshhorn.  
     I talked to the interim curator of OI—as the erstwhile Oriental Institute styles itself now that its original name is considered to contain a slur—on Monday, arranging a visit next month when I'm in the neighborhood for a book publishing luncheon.
     I tried to cast my mind back to when I last was there. Turns out it was before I was a columnist, though this brief article has a column-like feel to it.

     Karen Wilson's basement is in chaos. Open boxes everywhere. Pots and jars lying around, some of them shattered in fragments. People scurry here and there, and then, of course, there are all those mummified bodies and human bones.
     Wilson, needless to say, is not your average harried homeowner, but curator of the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute, that world-famous repository of ancient Middle Eastern relics, now in the midst of a yearlong house cleaning in advance of a $10.1 million overhaul of its Hyde Park museum headquarters.
     The task is enormous — about 80,000 cataloged objects are stored in the basement, with thousands more not yet entered into the institute's computerized system. All of them have to be packed up and moved so workers can begin construction of a new storage wing, including installation of state-of-the-art climate control to keep Chicago's mercurial weather from inflicting further harm on the priceless artifacts.
     "A lot of objects suffered more since they came to Chicago than during the thousands of years they were buried in the sand in the Middle East," said Wilson. "Inside any building in Chicago there can be dramatic changes in relative humidity — from 100 percent in the summer to 5 percent in the winter. The objects absorb moisture, then give it off."
     Moisture migration breaks down the artifacts, as evidenced by the white rime of salt drawn to the surface on unwrapped mummies, of which there are several. To slow the process, the mummies are kept in a refrigerated room, along with other organic materials. The plan is to keep the room cooled during reconstruction, but if that proves impossible, a creative solution will have to be found.
     "We've thought of using fur vaults," said Wilson.
     Registrar Ray Tindel is in charge of keeping track of the artifacts, which range in size from the tiniest shards to a column base that weighs five tons. He says relics being dropped is not a problem — staffers handle them with scrupulous care. But sometimes they fall apart on their own.
     "Suddenly, a pot goes kaflump," said Tindel. "That is one of the things that causes the greatest heartbreak."
     Despite the value of the treasures, theft is not a problem.
     "You have to have a trusted staff," Wilson said.
     One of those staff members is rewrapping pots. Third-year archeology student Robyn Casson, 20, takes object number 36.1.27, a red clay jar from Hierakonpolis in southern Egypt, matches it with a pair of computerized labels. One label goes on the little plastic bag the object goes in, the other on the outside of the bubble wrap that she pulls from a wide roll and swaddles the artifact in to protect it on its journey around the building.
     Despite the repetitious nature of the work, Oriental Institute staffers say it does not get tiresome. Assistant curator Emily Teeter displays a narrow bottomed flared beaker, burnished red with black glaze.
     "The collection is absolutely incredible," she says, gingerly holding the 6,000-year-old ceramic. "We handle this stuff every day, but still, several times a day, you come across an object and you have to say: `Look at this!' "
     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, September 27, 1994


  1. I really fail to see how the word "Oriental" is now offensive. I was there just before they started the climate control system & was talking to one of the guides & he said the Rockefellers paid to start the museum. I told him something he never heard of, that the rich WASPs never air conditioned their homes in NYC or the suburbs, because they always went to cool resorts for the summer, such as Mt. Desert Island in Maine. I personally observed that on a bike ride through Kenilworth on a 90 degree day, where almost every house had the windows open, as Kenilworth is a bastion of WASPs & outright antisemitism!

    1. I believe it is the air of assumed exotisim that people find offensive. "The smell of incense and the song of a gong" is how one Asian journalist put it.

    2. I totally understand how "Oriental Institute" would now be considered a racial slur, but OI isn't all that great, either. Why haven't they just changed it to something like The Asian Institute, even though their collection includes many ancient treasures from what we call the Middle East? That region is often considered to be a part of Asia.

      I lived in Chicago and its suburbs for 36 years, half of them as an adult, and I must confess that in all that time, I never visited their world-class museum at E. 58th and Woodlawn, on the U. of C. campus. Not once. Not even for a grammar school field trip. Shame on me.


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