February 2, 2010

Oriental Insitutue explores founder's journey

Right after World War I, archeologist and founder of the Oriental Institute, James Henry Breasted, ventured on a dangerous trip through the Middle East in search of artifacts and excavation sites, just as the region was forming as a political entity, according to Geoff Emberling, the chief curator for The Oriental Institute.

Ninety years later, a special exhibit at the institute, called “Pioneers to the Past,” features documents, pictures, letters, and artifacts that tell the story of Breasted's adventure and how archeology interacts with colonialism, Emberling said.

"The exhibit reflects on the colonial roots of archeology," Emberling said, "The pervasive racism of the time was such that the interests of Arabs...were simply not taken into account."

Breasted purchased over 60,000 artifacts in the region, a practice modern archeologists do not approve of, because it disrupts the connection between the items and the people they represent, Emberling said. It also encourages looting.

Oriental Institute Director Gil Stein said the exhibit documented a significant year that saw the birth of the modern Middle East as a political entity, the beginning of modern American archeological work in the region, and the founding of the Oriental Institute.

“It is really interesting to understand how we’ve come to be who we are," Stein said."What we are doing is using one individual, James Henry Breasted, as a way to look at a whole set of really important changes in one year, the magical year of 1919."

The stability of the Middle East has enormous implications to the security of America, Stein said, as America is involved in two wars in the region--a major supplier of oil--and because of the relationship between Islam and Western culture.

“This exhibit provides a unique perspective on the formation of the modern Middle East,” Emberling said. “At its broadest the exhibit raises questions [about] how America projects itself abroad."

“Pioneers to the Past, will run until Sept. 29.