April 13, 2012

Temple rerun at the Oriental Institute

Upon entering the Special Exhibitions gallery of the Oriental Institute, one might expect that the new exhibit, Picturing the Past: Imaging and Imagining the Ancient Middle East simply adds volume to the impressive collection of artistic, historical, and archaeological objects already on display in the handsome museum. However, progress a bit further into the compact space, and it becomes apparent that this exhibit presents the ancient Middle East in a noticeably different (and refreshingly multi-faceted) light. Rather than merely displaying artifacts, Picturing the Past focuses on the selective and highly interpretive nature of methods of recording, documenting, and recreating aspects of the ancient world, forcing viewers to question their own understandings of the past.

As the presence of art on campus grows (most obviously in the opening of the new Logan Arts Center), curators Emily Teeter, Jack Green, and John Larson have chosen to emphasize the more artistic aspects of archaeological study in their creation of the exhibit. “We began to realize that we have some really, really beautiful artwork from the excavations,” Teeter noted, continuing, “It raised questions: Who did these? Who were they for?”

The smartly-organized space guides visitors through the process of “historicizing” the past, beginning with a detailed description of recording methods (presented alongside notebooks and sketches by Henry Breasted, Egyptologist and founder of the Oriental Institute), and progressing through a striking collection of paintings, satellite images, and digital reconstructions.

Picturing the Past celebrates the ingenuity of such techniques. Extremely detailed and accurate drawings and blueprints of temple artwork demand respect, and paintings such as “View of Babylon” by Maurice Bardin demonstrate an almost awe-inspiring creativity and imagination. Also, interspersed throughout the gallery, interactive stations allow visitors to explore innovative computer-generated layouts of ancient temples and festivals, view spy satellite images of archaeological sites, and flip through stereo-opticon cards (the 1950s version of today’s 3-D technology, sans red-and-green glasses). The collection artfully applauds the innovation of new methods that allow researchers to delve much deeper into the past world than previously possible.

However, it also acknowledges the limits of such methods. The individual pieces, though remarkable by themselves, truly gain significance when presented together. As a coherent unit, they acknowledge the limitations of archaeological study and artistic reproduction, question the effects of historical embellishment, and expose and challenge our modern-day societal notions of the past. Beneath the lovely images presented in the collection hums a certain skepticism, a realization that the reconstructions and renderings might have confused our perceptions of the past as much as they helped to create them. “There are a lot of ways you can portray the past,” Teeter reminds.

Picturing the Past offers an unexpected glimpse into the process of documenting the ancient Middle East, and leads to questions regarding the overwhelming subjectivity of “history” in general. Though the exhibit notes that artistic rendering and digital imaging certainly have their limits in terms of accuracy, it declares (quite beautifully) the importance of attempting such recreations. In picturing the past—in painting it, photographing it, digitizing it—researchers strive to form an authentic view of the world as it existed long ago; as a picture itself, this exhibit makes an admirable step in the right direction.