BIBLE HISTORY DAILY

Why the University of Chicago’s Museum Changed Its Name

An interview with ISAC Museum Curator Kiersten Neumann

Kiersten Neumann, Curator of the ISAC Museum

The Institute for the Study of Ancient Cultures (ISAC) Museum at the University of Chicago, known until last year as the Oriental Institute Museum, houses one of the foremost collections of West Asian and North African antiquities in North America, with more than 350,000 artifacts. Kiersten Neumann, Curator of the ISAC Museum, offers some insights on the name change, the continuing appeal and relevance of the institute and its work, and her experience as its curator.

Why was the ISAC Museum originally called the Oriental Institute Museum?

NEUMANN: The Oriental Institute was founded by James Henry Breasted more than a hundred years ago, in 1919. His ambition was to establish an interdisciplinary research center to study the earliest civilizations of an area that he vividly named “the Fertile Crescent.” At the time, this broad geographical area—today variably called the Middle East, Near East, or West Asia and North Africa—was more commonly called the “orient,” which meant “east,” and the institute launched expeditions and research projects at sites spanning from Tunisia to Iran. The Oriental Institute Museum opened its doors in 1931, and the collections grew in the following decades.


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Last year, the museum changed its name. Why was the name change necessary?

NEUMANN: The meaning of the term “orient” as “east” is no longer part of common American English usage. In addition to more often being associated today with East Asia, the term can also carry derogatory associations. Our new name more fittingly represents the geographical and cultural regions that are the focus of the institute’s research and collections. We are hopeful that the new name will foster new and stronger connections both locally and globally, as well as opportunities for engagement and celebration.

Assyrian winged bull (eighth century BCE) from Khorsabad, on display in the ISAC Museum. Image credit: Trjames, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

What are some of the highlights of the museum’s collections?

NEUMANN: Beyond the most visually impactful objects from the galleries—such as the commanding, 40-ton winged bull from the Assyrian palace at Khorsabad, a monumental limestone bull head from Persepolis, or a 16-foot statue of King Tutankhamun—two aspects of the museum truly shine: the strong archaeological provenience of the collection and its accompanying archives. Most of the objects were excavated during the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s and allotted to the institute through the division of finds. The museum’s archival collections include expedition diaries, object logs, archival slides and photographs, and export permits that offer unparalleled insight into the history of the institute’s work. They also document the objects’ original archaeological contexts and their subsequent acquisition, study, and display.

Beyond the museum’s name change, what other changes will visitors notice?

NEUMANN: The COVID-19 pandemic forced us to reevaluate what types of programming are most impactful and enticing for in-person versus online events. Although we reopened our galleries in September 2020, we continue to offer online programs and recordings that reach audiences across the globe.

Visitors who come to the museum in-person will see updates to labels throughout the galleries, alongside references to the institute’s new name and updated geographical terminology. We’re shifting our temporal terminology—from BC/AD to BCE/CE—and we’re updating our displays to move away from the use of the term “mummy” in favor of more humanizing terminology, including “mummified person” or the name of the deceased individual when known. We’ve also added a label at the entrance to the Egyptian gallery alerting visitors to the display of mummified remains of deceased persons and animals.

What is your job as museum curator and what do you enjoy most about your work?

NEUMANN: My position is one that spans an assortment of responsibilities—no day is exactly the same! There are the expected curatorial duties: research and publishing on the museum’s object and archival collections, curating and coordinating special exhibitions, continually updating the permanent galleries’ object displays and didactics, improving our data-base, and guiding tours. We’re a small museum team, so in these various tasks I work closely with all of our departments: archives, conservation, curatorial, exhibition design, registration, and visitor services, in addition to colleagues at ISAC more broadly.

What I enjoy most as curator is the direct connection with objects. Despite having worked in museums for more than 14 years, I’m still humbled by the sensory experience of handling an object that is thousands of years old. Curatorial work is not just about caring for and understanding objects. For me, it’s catching a glimpse of the people who imagined and created the object; who used, experienced, and discarded it; who might have stumbled upon it centuries later; and who feel an intimate connection with it in the present day.


Related reading in Bible History Daily:

 

Oriental Institute’s Guide to Megiddo, Ancient Israel Available Online

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3 Responses

  1. Glenn Palmer says:

    Why the change from BC to BCE? BC is based on Christ’s birth. If you want to get away from our history, start your own calendar based on some event, like the French did during the French Revolution. Or the Jews do based on the creation date, or the Muslims do. But don’t just relabel something.

    1. James Hamilton says:

      Most modern academic inspired institutions have adopted the new usage, the idea being that Jewish communities particularly object to the use of Christ so “Common Era’ seems to allow the keeping of the calendar without seeming to be biased against non-Christians. The use of AD or AC also goes back to the term “In the year of our Lord”. The world is growing increasingly hostile to Christian terms. The museum is basically following in step the new agenda.

    2. George Drake says:

      As the young daughter of two apologists commented to an unbeliever about this “common era” nonsense, “Common to what?” Just another unbelieving attempt to redact Christ out of history. My grade school class visited the Oriental Institute on a field trip. What interested me most was the large collection of cylinder seals, being made of semi-precious gem minerals, and engraved with high art. At that time, the guide informed me they could be had for about $5, a sum almost possible for a kid at that time long ago.

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3 Responses

  1. Glenn Palmer says:

    Why the change from BC to BCE? BC is based on Christ’s birth. If you want to get away from our history, start your own calendar based on some event, like the French did during the French Revolution. Or the Jews do based on the creation date, or the Muslims do. But don’t just relabel something.

    1. James Hamilton says:

      Most modern academic inspired institutions have adopted the new usage, the idea being that Jewish communities particularly object to the use of Christ so “Common Era’ seems to allow the keeping of the calendar without seeming to be biased against non-Christians. The use of AD or AC also goes back to the term “In the year of our Lord”. The world is growing increasingly hostile to Christian terms. The museum is basically following in step the new agenda.

    2. George Drake says:

      As the young daughter of two apologists commented to an unbeliever about this “common era” nonsense, “Common to what?” Just another unbelieving attempt to redact Christ out of history. My grade school class visited the Oriental Institute on a field trip. What interested me most was the large collection of cylinder seals, being made of semi-precious gem minerals, and engraved with high art. At that time, the guide informed me they could be had for about $5, a sum almost possible for a kid at that time long ago.

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