NOTES FROM THE SCAFFOLD
By Eleanor Barbanes, Project Manager for Reinstallation of The Oriental Institute Museum
The University of Chicago
(This article originally appeared in The Oriental Institute News and Notes, No. 170, Summer 2001, and is made available electronically with the permission of the editor.)
One of the many tools of record-keeping employed by the kings of Assyria was the device of inscribing elements of their monumental architecture with narrative accounts of elaborate building projects for which they claimed responsibility. Such inscriptions would typically recount superhuman feats of technological derring-do, wildly innovative construction solutions, the finest building materials, and the divine inspiration necessary for the realization of their imperial designs. Since joining the Oriental Institute as Project Manager of the reinstallation this past August, the idea of resurrecting this imperial tradition has on more than one occasion seemed particularly apt. The effort, resources, and ingenuity being devoted to the reinstallation and the scale and scope of the design vision are sufficiently impressive to warrant a memorial inscription or two. When the remaining galleries are opened to the public in fall 2002, the newly-installed museum will stand as an elegant and enduring monument not only to the cultures of the ancient Near East and the legion of Oriental Institute archaeologists who crafted the collection, but also to the many important scholars and beneficiaries who have contributed their time, knowledge, and money to this truly heroic endeavor. In lieu of an inscription, however, the reinstallation progress is chronicled herein - an admittedly less flamboyant means of communication, but one which is perhaps more in keeping with our times.
Before the reinstallation began, and after a lengthy selection process, the Oriental Institute had awarded the project of designing the galleries to the acclaimed architectural firm of Vinci/Hamp Architects, Inc., a group renowned for museum design and sensitive to the particular needs of the Institute. Once the Egyptian and Persian galleries were open, museum staff and the architects embarked upon a new phase of work - the design of two public areas desperately in need of attention: the main lobby and the small space between the Egyptian and Persian galleries, referred to as the "Star Chamber" because of the gold and blue star pattern in Egyptian style which graces its ceiling. Responding to the Institute's desire to consolidate functions and clarify traffic flow in this important space, the architects have redesigned the furniture and signage. The anchor piece in the lobby is a custom-designed reception/security desk of monumental proportions, which will be counter height to better monitor the activity in the lobby and Suq (gift shop). Here, all Institute informational material will be displayed along the front of the desk, and a large wall-mounted Oriental Institute sign behind it will add visual emphasis.
The new design for the Star Chamber has a dual purpose. By installing wall-mounted cases on both sides of this small area, we can create additional exhibition space, while at the same time hiding the unsightly electrical boxes that take up valuable wall space. These sleek new wood and glass cases, with fabric-covered interiors and operable hinged doors, will be utilized for special exhibits of two-dimensional media which might consist of photographs, maps, and other types of documents. In addition to his regular projects, Museum Archivist John Larson will no doubt play a large part in the research and production of these exhibits, adding to his role in accessing research resources and providing materials for Karen Wilson and the faculty who are developing exhibition narrative for the new galleries. Oriental Institute field projects, ongoing archival projects, and the work of other scholars within the Institute community could easily be featured in these cases. Additionally, a fixed wooden bench will add much-needed seating in this space. Construction in the lobby and the Star Chamber will begin in late spring and early summer.
We are meeting regularly with the architects and are currently working on the north and east galleries, resolving issues of organization, case layout, and traffic flow. We will soon move on to the exhibition design phase, which will entail developing an exhibition narrative, presentation style, and collection layout. The intention is to build upon the major concepts already established in the Egyptian and Persian galleries to produce a unified, coherent museum. To this end, each gallery will be equipped with a number of new custom-designed cases as well some of the beautiful walnut and glass cases that have been part of the museum since the earliest days (called "Kensington cases," these are the same type used in the Victoria and Albert Museum in the South Kensington area of London). The galleries may each be painted a different shade, but all public spaces will have refinished terrazzo floors, freshly cleaned ceilings and stone walls, an improved lighting plan, and the same window treatments as are in the Egyptian and Persian galleries. Some of these renovation measures have been initiated within the past few months, and as visitors go through the galleries, the sight of a contractor on a scaffold or the sound of drilling will become increasingly commonplace. Construction will begin on both the north and east galleries this summer, and in the west gallery next winter.
The north gallery will house not only the Mesopotamian exhibit, but two other components as well. For the first time, the museum will devote space to a Visitor Orientation Center, which is intended to introduce visitors to the history and mission of the Oriental Institute and provide an overview of the museum's exhibits. An important part of this area will be an interactive computer display, currently being designed by the Museum Education office with the advice and assistance of Institute faculty and staff. Using video and sound, it will incorporate engaging and informative material relevant to the exhibits, such as background on featured objects, suggestions for custom-designed tours, knowledge-testing games, and other information allowing visitors to enrich their experience of the museum. Also featured in the gallery will be an exhibition of the Prehistoric period, which will showcase the pioneering archaeological excavations of Robert and Linda Braidwood.
Within the east gallery, space will be shared by three exhibitions. Seven of the Assyrian reliefs plus contemporaneous artifacts from Mesopotamia will occupy the northern third of the gallery. The Syro-Anatolian exhibit will occupy much of the remaining space, and the easternmost portion, adjacent to the Egyptian gallery, will be devoted to the Megiddo exhibit. The west gallery will contain the Nubian exhibit, as well as space for temporary exhibits.
From its inception, one of the main design issues of the reinstallation has been to celebrate the jewel of Art Deco architecture that we are fortunate enough to inhabit, and to maintain the integrity of the building's structure and its many endearing details. While some of these details - such as 18 foot high ceilings, intricate stonework, and walnut and brass radiator covers - have unquestionable aesthetic merit, others can't help but be seen as limitations: the huge and numerous windows in the galleries mean a dearth of usable wall space necessary for explanatory text panels and wall-hung casework, and they actually allow too much daylight to penetrate the interior; the gorgeous, unique glass globes in the shape of Late Bronze Age pilgrim flasks need replacement on a constant basis because modern light bulbs of even low wattage tend to get too hot within the globe and burn out; and then there is the lack of space for public amenities such as more coat storage or lobby seating. None of these qualities is a barrier to good design, of course, but there are limitations to what we can ask the architects to do in light of them.
Throughout the remainder of the reinstallation, a team led by Head Conservator Laura D'Alessandro will continue the formidable task of framing and erecting thirteen Assyrian relief panels. Upon completion, this installation will approximate the experience of a visit to the late eighth century bc Neo-Assyrian palace at the site of Dur-Sharrukin (Khorsabad) where the reliefs were originally found. Recovered by the Oriental Institute, these panels represent one of the most eloquent periods of Assyrian relief-carving, depicting King Sargon II, his son, Sennacherib, and a royal entourage. Along with the giant lamassu (winged bull), they are going to be exhibited as an ensemble, in their logical order, for the first time since their removal from the palace in 1929. Six reliefs approximately 9 ≈ 9 feet and weighing 15,000 lbs each will be arrayed along the walls on either side of the lamassu, in an order corresponding to their original location in Courtyard VIII of the royal palace, though only two panels are actually contiguous. Also, for the first time ever, it will be possible to view the inscriptions on the back of the reliefs. This exhibit will be directly above the basement-level archaeology labs. However, archaeologists working in the labs below need not be too concerned about the enormous weight being borne above them, as the original building columns have been heavily reinforced with steel and concrete to accommodate the load. There are also smaller reliefs from other areas in Sargon's palace, including a processional scene of men and horses as well as part of a banquet scene, which will be disposed in part of the east gallery in an arrangement recalling the palace interior. The Assyrian relief project is an undertaking that can only be accomplished with the assistance of two firms specializing in lifting and treating heavy art and artifacts, and it is very tricky, hazardous work involving heavy-duty rigging equipment, iron welding, the custom design of steel frames, as well as a good deal of experimentation. It is actually a combination of a conservation and a construction project, which even the most seasoned conservators would find daunting, but one which Laura and her conservation team, assistant conservator Vanessa Muros and Getty Intern Vicki Parry, are tackling more than capably. Laura has considerable experience with these large and unwieldy artifacts, having visited the Louvre during installation of their Assyrian reliefs and lamassu.
Among the well-known Assyrian pieces from Khorsabad being reinstalled as companions to the large reliefs are two statues in the round from the forecourt of the Nabu temple, and a bronze band executed in repoussé, which was part of the facade of the Shamash temple at Khorsabad. A vibrantly colored glazed brick tableaux from the facade of the Sin temple will also be conserved and displayed. Other significant archaeological remains include a fragment of a stone threshold resembling a carpet and numerous other equally important objects from the same period. These objects contribute to a substantial and impressive assemblage of Neo-Assyrian culture that is sure to be one of the highlights of the museum.
Along with the Khorsabad Court reliefs and other Assyrian artifacts, most of the objects previously exhibited in all of the galleries are once again being brought to light and there is, as well, some material never before exhibited, or exhibited in less than ideal ways. An entire assemblage of artifacts from the Amuq area of Anatolia, for instance, had never been fully researched and will now form the basis for the portion of the Syro-Anatolian gallery presenting the Institute's ongoing excavation in that region.
Other all-time favorites being given pride of place are the Black Obelisk, the Code of Hammurabi, and the pair of lions from the Babylon Gate, as well as the spectacular collections of artifacts from Megiddo and the Diyala region. All of the reinstalled objects will benefit from new techniques of display being developed and eventually constructed by Installation Coordinator Joe Scott with the help of Assistant Preparator Elliot Weiss, both of whom handle the real "nuts and bolts" of the reinstallation.
Long before the objects are placed in their cases, the process of research and selection for the exhibitions begins. Karen Wilson spearheads this process and is ultimately responsible for the shaping of the exhibitions and final object selection, in consultation with faculty members having relevant knowledge of the region, archaeological context, history, culture, and languages of the period. Raymond Tindel (Museum Registrar and Senior Curator) and John Larson, as well as other faculty, staff, and students in the Oriental Institute are contributing to the research of the upcoming exhibitions. Once the objects are identified for exhibit, Ray begins the sometimes arduous process of locating and "pulling" each and every one of the multitude of objects chosen. Ray's comprehensive knowledge and meticulous organization of the entire collection in storage is relied upon by all of us working on the reinstallation, as is his ingenuity and resourcefulness in everything from identifying an object's history to installing a lock on a door. After Ray locates the objects in storage and pulls them for selection, the next step is conservation. Laura, Vicky, and Vanessa are ably balancing the conservation of hundreds of objects while at the same time working on the Khorsabad Court reliefs. Conservation must be accomplished before the objects can be reinstalled, and object conservation is, in fact, a critical issue in the redesign of the museum.
Many of the most important aspects of the design of the museum's exhibitions are not immediately visible to the uninformed visitor, but most are directly related to the need to display the objects in a stable environment that will best preserve them. Even something as simple as too much daylight or a live plant can have severely detrimental affects on ancient and delicate artifacts. Light increases the deterioration process and accelerates damage to objects, which is cumulative. It is for this reason that the museum installed windows with a type of film between the panes intended to lower the visible light level in the galleries and sought out special window shades that further filter ultraviolet light. The climate control system - installed to maintain ideal temperature, humidity, and air filtration in all of the areas holding collections in the Institute - is yet another important element in the gallery design, and a critical one considering our collections, which include large numbers of especially fragile objects such as wood, bone, papyrus, and textiles. The effectiveness of this system can be undermined by the simple gesture of introducing fresh flowers or live plants into the galleries. Infestation of pests brought in on those plants and flowers has to be considered a threat, as they might permeate the vents and affect the entire air system, jeopardizing the objects.
The fundamental importance of the Oriental Institute's collection is that it is much more than just an assortment of very old and pretty things. What distinguishes us from many other institutions exhibiting archaeological artifacts is the fact that the preponderance of our collection comes from what is referred to as "stratified contexts," meaning the artifacts were unearthed in systematic excavation; they can be more accurately identified and perhaps better understood than artifacts with no known provenance (findspot) or those purchased on the open market. This characteristic cannot be overemphasized. Only a very small number of museums in the world can claim this distinction. Moreover, many of the archaeological sites represented in our museum have provided some of the most substantive information available about the history of humankind and the emergence of the earliest societies on earth.
It is easy to see, therefore, why a major part of the museum's mission is the preservation of this information, these spectacular artifacts, and this immense body of knowledge. It also becomes clear why in a process where a fragile bone pin might be accorded significance equal to a 40-ton stone statue, the conservation and display of each object is well worth the time and cost it takes not just to do the job of reinstalling, but to do the job the right way. It is an immense opportunity, and an immense challenge, but with the opening of the Egyptian and Persian galleries well behind us, and the fabulous Ur exhibition now a glittering memory, the reinstallation progresses towards completion and is steadily gaining momentum. When all of the galleries are open to the public, the new museum, including the renovated conservation and storage facilities, which are a critical part of it, will at long last be an appropriate home for the collection, and will honor the many scholars and devoted lay people who have spent their energies and resources in the cause of the Oriental Institute throughout its history. In the meantime, much work remains, but those of us working on this project anticipate the complete opening of the galleries excitedly, optimistically, and with a great sense of purpose.
Eleanor Barbanes has been the Project Manager for reinstallation since August 2000. Her Ph.D. is in Near Eastern archaeology, and she has worked in architectural offices in New York and, most recently, at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Revised: April 28, 2011