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.
Add to it the cultural turmoil over heretofore marginalized people asserting their long-denied humanity, and suddenly the unwrapped pharaoh that sat for decades in the Egyptology display takes on the air of a corpse displayed at a carnival sideshow.
The word “mummy,” like “slave,” is out, as overly reductive. The museum prefers to use the name of the individual. A trigger alert notice at the entrance to the Egyptian gallery reads: “Please be aware that the mummified remains of deceased persons and animals are on display in this gallery.”
Nor does the OI shy away from taking a hard look at what it has. One placard in the Roman exhibit is titled, “Healthy Skepticism” and begins, “Questioning authenticity is an integral and ever-present component of the study of objects that lack archeological provenience ...” at which I point I had to stifle an almost physical urge to hurry down to Springfield, prod the trustees of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum onto a bus, and force them here to compare the OI’s clear-eyed treatment of their questionable objects with their own shameful, knee-jerk veneration of the dubious “Lincoln hat” they ended up losing anyway.
“It’s a really wonderful collection to tackle current discussions related to archeological context,” Neumann said. “Rather than present an authoritative single museum voice, we wanted to say, ‘Here’s the realistic way research takes place.’”
Even with shifts in the political weather, archeology still goes on. The OI has about a dozen digs around the globe — there’s a new one at a Phoenician site in Spain.
“The OI is quite active in the field, still,” she said, “The approaches to archeology are very different now. There is a much greater emphasis on working with local communities, working with antiquities boards and cultural heritage departments.”
Though now the relics they find stay put.
“Objects that are excavated remain locally or go to national museums.”
I’m genuinely ambivalent. On one hand, the Western world took pains to recover, collect, study and preserve these antiquities — they might not exist to be claimed otherwise — and repatriating antiquities deprives the rest of the world a chance to see them. There’s enough to go around. Plus, other cultures get to have their own chauvinistic perspectives; why not the West?
And yet these treasures were often removed during times of regional chaos — the Ottoman Empire gave permission to take the Elgin Marbles, Turkey then having control of Greece. If you set your furniture on the lawn during a fire, you don’t expect your neighbors to steal it.
I visited because I happen to be in the neighborhood and asked myself if the exhibit is something every Chicagoan should rush to see. The marbles were collected in the late 1950s, when the Art Institute hadn’t flexed its muscles and far outstripped them in quality.
“Most people, including myself, when this started had no idea this collection existed,” Neumann said.
But the Oriental Institute is a delightful place to spend an hour wandering and feel the weight of human history. And if you haven’t seen that winged bull, it alone is worth the $10 price of admission.
The effacing hand of time, by the way, helped with the physical transport of the colossal carving by toppling it over — face down, thankfully; had it fallen face up, its marvelous detail might have been effaced by the elements. It broke into a dozen more easily transportable chunks. If you look closely, in places you can still see the cracks.
The Oriental Institute is at 1155 E. 58th St. “Making Sense of Marbles: Roman Sculptures at the OI,” runs through March 12, 2023.