Friday, October 28, 2005

New Director of Chicago Oriental Institute strives to make the ancient world meaningful to a modern audience

Harvard Magazine:

"In a glass case stand a dozen carved statues of gypsum alabaster ? male figurines with their hands folded at their chests and their shell-and-lapis-lazuli eyes wide open. Dating to around 2500 B.C., the statues were commissioned by wealthy Mesopotamians as proxy worshippers, to stand in the temples of gods and pray in their owners? absence. ?The Mesopotamians saw gods as present all around us,? explains new Oriental Institute Museum director Geoff Emberling ?87. The gods were also believed to reside in their cult statues, he says, ?so the idea that a person could be present in a statue is not so far removed.? The figurines and their role fascinate him because ?they take us out of our way of seeing,? he explains, and provide ?a good example of how, with a little understanding, we can glimpse? another world. Emberling, who has studied the ancient Near East for more than 20 years, has always tried to connect with that world.

The museum had closed its galleries in 1996, so workers could install climate-control systems. Since then, the refurbished, redesigned galleries have reopened, one at a time ? Egyptian (1999), Persian (2000), and Mesopotamian (2003). When Emberling arrived, planning was well underway for the Assyrian, Syro-Anatolian, and Megiddo galleries, which opened last January. His museum knowledge proved valuable: Stein credits him with engaging a design consultant ?to give a similar look and feel to all of our galleries? and with saving the institute $100,000 by suggesting that a wall to hold Assyrian reliefs be built in-house.

Emberling is also linking the museum more closely to the contemporary world. The final exhibit hall, on Nubia (today part of modern Egypt and Sudan), opens in February. Highlighting Nubia?s ties to African Americans, Emberling has secured a Joyce Foundation grant to help local schoolchildren visit the museum to make their own Nubian ?artifacts? and learn to give tours to classmates and parents. ?The idea is to make local kids feel some ownership of the museum,? he explains. ?I?m very excited about it.?

In addition, he has booked rotating exhibits ? a new concept for the OI ? through 2009; they include one on traditional Palestinian dress and another on printed maps of the Ottoman Empire. From here the job could move in several directions. He may focus on curating: the OI has thousands of objects in basement drawers that its registrar has estimated would take six people five years to document. "