U. of C.’s Oriental Institute celebrates centennial

The world’s oldest-known fragment of “One Thousand and One Nights,” on display at the Oriental Institute. (Contributed photo)

By AARON GETTINGER
Staff writer

The Oriental Institute celebrated its centennial with a black-tie anniversary gala on Saturday, giving guests a chance to view galleries renovated with a greater emphasis on accessibility.

It has been an eventful 100 years. In 1919, archaeology was overwhelmingly focused on ancient Greece and Rome. Professor James Henry Breasted founded the OI with a then-groundbreaking emphasis on the Near East, or Orient.

The OI established Chicago House in Luxor, Egypt, in 1924, and opened its museum, 1155 E. 58th St., in 1931. There are 5,000 artifacts from the ancient Middle East on display and about 350,000 in storage, with active digs going on in Egypt, Turkey, Iraq, Kurdistan, Jordan and Israel.

By 2014, however, artifacts were still being held in the same freestanding cases as they had been in 1931, which were out-of-date compared with modern, climate-stabilized cases and the old cases’ lacquer was contaminating the objects they held.

“It was a bit heady,” said Wally Verdooren, the OI’s director of development said on a pre-gala gallery walk-through. “The first gallery was just where they put all the big stuff. Now it’s all been thematically restructured and reorganized.”

Thanks to an anonymous donor’s multimillion-dollar gift, the OI bought 55 new cases and, while the museum stayed open, reorganized galleries with greater emphasis on accessibility for laymen. Links between the ancient and contemporary Middle East, from the artifacts on display to their archeological processes that brought them to Chicago, have also been fleshed out in exhibits.

The first exhibit used to be an academic synopsis of all the galleries to come; now visitors get a preview of the many artifacts on display. Mesopotamian artifacts stretch back to 4,000 BC, followed by artifacts from modern-day Syria, Egypt and Iran.

A 4,000-pound stone relief from Persepolis, a site in Iran that was the capital of the Achaemenid Empire, had been on long-term loan to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston since 1932. Now it is on display in Hyde Park for the first time since the Herbert Hoover presidency.

A new exhibit displays early Islamic art, which had always been represented in the OI’s collections but never on display at the museum. The world’s oldest-known fragment of “One Thousand and One Nights” is now in the gallery — though it curiously refers to the work as “One Thousand Arabian Nights.”

“Our collections in Middle Eastern relics rival — and even sometimes exceed — the Louvre, the British Museum, the Pergamon in Berlin,” Verdooren said. “The difference between our artifacts and collections is most of them were excavated by OI archeologists. That’s what makes them very, very distinctive.”

The digs in Luxor have taken an epigraphic turn: archaeologists are painstakingly recording signage and artwork in temples for posterity as sites take on accelerating decay due to environmental degradation and age.

The OI was founded as the U. of C.’s first interdisciplinary body, and it does not grant degrees. Affiliated faculty have joint appointments in departments like History, Classics or Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. There are also full-time senior research associates. The OI has an annual $9 million budget, coming from its endowment, private philanthropy and the U. of C.

Howard Hallengren, a retired businessman who was awarded this year’s James Henry Breasted Medallion, helped fund the OI’s archaeological work in Nippur, Iraq, in the 1970s; he later served as treasurer for the American Institute for Yemeni Studies.

“I think learning about our past and what archaeology can show and illustrate has really been fantastic,” he said. “I’m glad that I’ve been able to contribute to the renovation of the museum here. Jean Evans, the curator, has done a fantastic job.”

“We are the stewards of what Breasted created, the beneficiaries of his vision, ambition and persistence,” Director Christopher Woods said at the gala. “There are projects — because of their magnitude, because of the resources and time commitments they require — that can only be tackled here at the OI, the University of Chicago’s first research institute. With this comes a responsibility — an obligation even — to undertake such projects. And in large part, we have defined ourselves over the last century by doing so.”

“This is one of the most important aspects of Breasted’s legacy for us,” Woods continued. “It is what makes the OI so unique: the ability to do what can only be done here.”

Carlotta Maher, who was the first Breasted Medallion recipient in 1997, remembered changes at the museum from when she first started as a volunteer over 50 years ago.

“The minute I walked into the Institute — really by accident the first time — I thought it was closed. There wasn’t anyone in the building — the doors turned out to be open, maybe one guard floating around,” she said. “But then when the volunteer program started in 1966, all that changed. Suddenly there were school buses in the street.” She became a conservator, going to sites in Egypt for 23 seasons.

“The museum of heaven for me,” she said. “It was the first time I entered as part of the volunteer program, when things were a little livelier, that I truly fell in love” She continues to study hieroglyphs and reads the ancient “Book of the Dead” every Saturday with a friend — “We know how to have a good time!”

The OI’s public centennial celebration is scheduled from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 28.

a.gettinger@hpherald.com