BREAKOUT: To go box at end of story.
CHICAGO – Who knew? Tucked away inside a Gothic-style building at the University of Chicago is an astounding collection of Middle Eastern antiquities that could not be re-assembled here today at any cost.
The Oriental Institute Museum showcases 8,000 artifacts from some of the ancient empires – including those of Mesopotamia , Persia and Egypt -- that gave birth to modern civilization. Some of the oldest cultural relics go back more than 5,000 years.
Impressive stuff. Yet the free Hyde Park attraction has only a relatively modest attendance of about 60,000 visitors each year. In fact, some refer to the 16,000-square-foot museum as the proverbial hidden jewel.
“It drives us crazy when people call us that," says Gil Stein, director of the Oriental Institute that oversees the site.
Stein said the museum doesn’t have much of a marketing budget to compete with Chicago’s major tourism draws. He added that the institute’s mission is largely academic and driven by the continuing research of staff archaeologists.
Still, officials at the museum are hoping for a higher public profile, with the conclusion of a $15 million renovation that was finished last year. The revamped displays in the museum’s nine galleries are low-key and straightforward, but the contents would make flashier Chicago institutions green with envy.
One of the Oriental Institute Museum’s most stunning pieces is an imposing 40-ton sculpture of a winged, human-headed bull that once guarded the palace of the Assyrian king Sargon II (721-705 B.C.), in what is now Iraq. Museum director Geoff Emberling said the creature was meant to "intimidate" the ruler’s subjects.
Another room is dominated by a 20-foot-tall statue of King Tutankhamun, partially reconstructed, that is the largest ancient Egyptian statue in the Western Hemisphere. Mummies also are on display.
Meanwhile, relatively simple artifacts, such as tools and writings, relay the more routine, but universal, aspects of life in the bygone eras. Emberling said an artisan’s handprint on an ancient clay pot speaks volumes.
“There are vignettes of daily life in all of these cultures that are very, very evocative," he said. “There are these moments where you feel touched by humanity over the thousands of years that separate them and us.”
Where did the treasures come from? Unlike many museums that have paid for artifacts on the open market, the Oriental Institute launched archaeological expeditions after its founding in the early 1900s (at the time, “Oriental” denoted any region east of Istanbul). Stein said the U of C researchers took a share of artifacts – typically inferior from the ones left behind – under legal agreements with host governments that would not be possible today.
“The door is pretty much closed,” Emberling, the museum director, said. “That makes this collection irreplaceable, priceless.”
Americans today have their own notions about the Middle East, based on current events. The pieces at the museum are from pre-Islamic periods. Stein said modern-day visitors can still get a broader appreciation for the countries and their heritage.
“They’re very, very important places that have fallen on hard times,” he said.
Mike Ramsey can be reached at (312) 857-2323 or firstname.lastname@example.org .
IF YOU GO
The Oriental Institute Museum at the University of Chicago, 1155 E. 58th St., houses a collection of artifacts from the Ancient Middle East. It is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays; 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Wednesdays; and noon to 6 p.m. on Sundays. Admission is free, though donations are encouraged. Curbside street parking is scarce on weekdays, but paid parking lots are located a few blocks to the northwest. For more information, go to www.oi.uchicago.edu .