February 21, 2014

Take a break from work with more Work at OI

[img id="113184" align="left"/]Our Work: Moderns Jobs–Ancient Origins is a small but thought-provoking interdisciplinary project, organized and hosted as a special exhibit by the Oriental Institute Museum since August. The show explores the links between the past and present by connecting modern people with artifacts of their trade from the very beginnings of civilization through a series of portraits, interviews, and videos. The show will be closing this Sunday, February 23, but anyone who has not seen it should find a few minutes before then to browse this truly remarkable collection.

What do we owe to the past? How much of the past lives on today? These are questions posed in the introduction to the exhibit, and in many ways are fundamental to what the Oriental Institute seeks to study. The Institute has been actively participating in the discovery and further analysis of the early Middle East since its founding in 1919. Before laws changed about the removal of artifacts from their homeland, archaeologists discovered many significant objects—both ones from everyday life and ones more specifically linked to the development of government and language, as well as other key topics—that they were able to bring back to the University’s collections. The Institute studies the origin and early days of civilization through what is understood to be one of the most comprehensive collections of such antiquities in the world.

This special exhibit pursues these questions of the past in terms of the present in a particularly tangible and accessible way. Photographer Jason Reblando used tintype photography, a technique developed in the 19th century, with the additional aid of strobe lights to speed the otherwise long exposure time, to create another link between the past and present through his much shorter-lived field. He captured many levels of specialization within the workforce that seem familiar to us today but perhaps don’t feel like they would belong in similar roles in ancient times: a justice next to the museum’s plaster cast of the Law Code of Hammurabi, a baker from the Medici with a clay bread pan, a physician with a tablet of medical text, a poet with a tablet of the Epic of Gilgamesh, and many more. The information provided about the artifacts, when linked with the insight of the participants, allows for conclusions about the inventiveness of humans and the fundamental common ground humanity shares despite the distance of space or time.

Robert Zimmer, president of the University and former chair of the Department of Mathematics, participated in the project, representing mathematicians beside a cylinder inscribed with mathematical tables. Although he was unable to comment on his experience in retrospect, in his interview for the project he reflected on the past of his field, saying, “Living without zero is difficult, but obviously, people were able to do a great deal without it, which is really kind of impressive. After all, I mean, this tool [the cylinder] was used at a time when people were making significant calculations, they were solving significant problems, they didn’t have zero and yet they were still able to do it.”

A more comprehensive look at this intriguing project is available as a catalog sold in the museum gift shop, but the striking visual presentation is worth experiencing in-person.

Our Work: Modern Jobs, Ancient Origins runs at The Oriental Institute through February 23.