Monday, November 21, 2022

‘You are still left with doubts’


     Eric Snyder sat in silent contemplation before the massive carving of a human-headed winged bull. One guardian of the entrance to the throne room of King Sargon II in Assyria, the limestone creature is the foremost treasure of the Oriental Institute Museum at the University of Chicago.
     “It’s impressive,” said Snyder, visiting from Pennsylvania. A fork lift truck operator at a food plant, he naturally pondered the logistics of getting the 40-ton carving to Chicago.
     “Imagine what it took to bring it here,” he said then, without prompting, putting his finger on the issue that for decades has been roiling the world of archeology and museums. “Taking this from the place where it should be. Basically robbing it. In a word, stolen.”
     That’s perhaps putting it harshly. There is paperwork — in fact, the first artifact on display at ”Making Sense of Marbles: Roman Sculptures at the OI,” the museum’s exhibit of all nine of its Roman statues, is the export license related to their transfer here from Libya in 1957.
     “So much discussion today is about looting and repatriation and illegal acquisition,” said Kiersten Neumann, the Oriental Institute interim chief curator. “It’s very complicated.”
     From Greece thundering for the return of the Elgin Marbles — friezes pried from the Parthenon and spirited to the British Museum —to the Smithsonian last month giving a trove of Benin bronzes back to Nigeria, it’s hard to display a golden cup without conversations about how it got here and whether it should go back.
     That ambivalence extends all the way to the name of this small-but-potent museum. It’s still officially the “Oriental Institute,” though staffers’ shirts and press releases use “OI.” The name will officially change in February; Neumann won’t say to what.
     “Oriental” is considered a slur, not so much because it’s a direct insult but an anachronism, viewing Asian cultures as exotic, incense-shrouded mysteries, perspective encouraged by the West’s tendency to romanticize what it can’t understand, the same way hieroglyphics assumed to be supernatural incantations sometimes turned out to be grain inventories and recipes for beer.

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6 comments:

  1. Oy! If the OI really wanted to get away from the word Oriental why didn't they announce the new one instead of this state of limbo? Why did they include its initial in transitional name? Invariably, people will ask what does OI stand for.
    If they are going to use just initials shouldn't it be OIM?
    I've always tried to be sensitive to what people would like be referred. It seems every time there is a change I'm behind the curve and almost always use the older version.
    I never liked the term African-American as I know some people with white skin from South Africa. Black seems to be acceptable but I'm not really comfortable as it seems negative. I'm probably wrong, as I often am.
    Is it Hispanic, Latin, Latinex? I'm not sure.
    I avoid using those sort of descriptive words as much as possible. There's usually no point in doing so.

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    1. Words change their meanings over time. When I was a kid, a person of color was "colored"--and later on they were "Negro.". Most of the adults in my life used the German and Yiddish word for "black person"---"schvartzer"...but it was not used kindly most of the time.

      But if you called a person of color "black" to their face, you'd better be prepared to engage in fisticuffs or worse, and you faced the possibility of a serious ass-whupping. It was an insult that was almost on a par with the n-word. That was the case right up until the time of "Black Power" in the 60s. And here's to you, Stokely Carmichael (1941-1998), the man who first said it.

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  2. Ambivalence seems like a reasonable choice considering that nothing you do or say is going to change the circumstances that allowed these often stolen sometimes " paid for" antiquities to find their way to western museums and collections.
    That being said, it is appalling that is significant portion of antiquities were looted and I can't think of anything similar happening to cultural artifacts of the United States being looted and distributed throughout the world.

    I do remember that the Nazis seized the property of Jewish people that were killed during the Holocaust and great effort has been made to wrestle these generally, I guess you would say objects of art held by private persons and return them to their rightful owners or heirs.
    Our invasion of Iraq resulted in a large quantity of objects from their national museum disappearing. A large effort to recover these has been made I'm not sure what success resulted

    I have, of course many times viewed various objects of dubious provenance often with great joy

    So shame on me for my ambivalence

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  3. For 15000 years, conquest established, conquerors have sought to trumpet its reach: every museum, zoo, arboretum, flower garden, even urban diversity have served this implicit message. It is for Neil to remark, on behalf on the conquered who were once conquerors, standing at the nerve center of the ascendant Rockefeller foundation,the gentle message of Percy Shelley.

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  4. A pleasure to meet you Neil. Reading your honest blog, perhaps the better question doesnt reference Royko. Perhaps you are right that Chicago's phantom nostalgia for journalism's heir apparent is fool's gold. Perhaps your desire to observe, to drill, to connect seemingly unrelated, even unseen modern world dots, is in the best tradition of Steven Gould. No small feat, that.

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    1. Nice to meet you too, and while I hate to deflect a compliment, in this case it seems necessary.

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