Classic blog post from 2012/05/23
In Search of Adventure
Indiana Jones, mummies, fission and Frank Lloyd Wright
Several years ago I went to the Oriental Institute Museum at the University of Chicago. I urge you to do the same. In fact, I’ve been going on and off over the years.
I was staying at the Omni Hotel on Michigan Avenue (of which Oprah Winfrey is part owner). It’s a great hotel. It’s worth it. The Omni is a great hotel. If you decide to stay get a window over looking Michigan Avenue. Across the street was the Apple Store and their environmentally sustainable roof. I never saw a roof with vegetation growing on top except inside the covers of architectural magazines.
‘N’ was off to see a good friend — so I had the afternoon to do some exploring. My destination was the Oriental Museum at the University of Chicago. The word Oriental is an antiquated name, and I’m not sure if its totally appropriate. It’s a word that got used a lot in the 20s and 30s. The Oriental Institute concentrates on what is termed the Near East.
When I was on Michigan Avenue to my surprise the streets were filled with people all walking south. At the DuSable Bridge that crosses the river, was a public event. Oprah Winfrey had closed down Michigan Avenue, yes she has he power to close a street in Chicago, and was hosting a flash mob with music provided by the band Black Eyed Peas. Need I explain Black Eyed Peas? This is an American musical group consisting of the rappers: will.I.am, apl.de.ap, Taboo and J. Rey Soul. I Gotta a Feeling was being played on loud speakers while hundreds performed choregraphed dance steps provided by YouTube instruction weeks before the event.
No! I didn’t join in.
I was there to travel to the past. I walked south looking for a bus stop past the river. A concierge told me that I could catch a bus going south.
Eventually, I took a cab. It was a long walk to the south side of Chicago. My destination was 5801 S. Ellis Avenue. If your staying in a hotel downtown, definitely take a cab. It just makes life a whole lot easier.
Wikipedia: The University of Chicago is a private research university in Chicago, Illinois. Founded in 1890, its main campus is located in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood. The University of Chicago is ranked among the best universities in the world, and it is among the most selective in the United States.
This area has an interesting history to it. For one, President Obama has a house in the Hyde Park area. The movie ‘Home Alone’ filmed the church scene in this location, and the first ‘controlled’ chain reaction of fission took place on campus. I believe the laboratory was under the bleachers. I have a story on this subject, of which I’ll save to the end of the post.
Coming on to campus off the street, you pass the monument to the first sustainable fission experiment, and closer to the Oriental Institute you can see the Frederick C. Robie House which is considered a U.S. National Historic Landmark
UC takes you back in time. The architecture is Gothic, a step into the past. Now, this is how a university should look like. If I go to a school I want to see higher learning reflected in gothic palisades. I want knowledge rising up on my left and right in rising spires. The University reminds me of Oxford (another place I visited) and has the “dreaming spires” to prove it. This was not the first time I visited UC. I think while growing up I must have come six or seven times over the years. Visiting the Oriental Museum was considered a treat in my family while we were growing up. It was an adventure.
“You graduated from 8th grade, my boy. Let’s take you to Oriental Institute.”
TWO OF MY STRONGEST MEMORIES:
It was my first look at a mummy. The skin was black, the body looked drained, the outer layers almost gave the impression of black construction paper with the consistency of tissue paper found in a grammar school art class. What does a 13 year old kid know about death? Well, some do…however, at the time not this particular suburban kid. I was told that it was “old”. OLD! What is that to a 13 year old? The man inside the glass case had the highest cheek bones I had ever seen. His remains were older than me, my parents, my town, my city, and even my country. He was older than the nations of Europe! That 13 year old (me) was looking into a black hole, unable to conceive the age of the man in the glass case. At the time, and I still think about it, the man did not seem to be resting peacefully. He looked posed, as if standing in front of a royal court. At that time, I could not conceive what I was looking at. What is this dark man telling me?
“Silent strength is the quality of all good men, and most mummies,” said Theodore Roosevelt.
At that time, no secrets were given up. That’s the issue, I want secrets to be given up.
A MYSTERIOUS ANCIENT POEM.
I have another memory. I cannot recall if it was a dream, or something real. On the wall was a translation of an ancient Babylonian Poem.
It’s a tale about a boy that worries about death. Each person he goes to, either father, mother, aunt or uncle, tells him not to worry about the afterlife, but to live for the moment. “Eat, dance, and make love in the day you have.” I recall reading it out loud to my mother. WAS THIS poem real? I recall it being on the wall.
FIRST IMPRESSIONS IN THE NOW.
The museum is like something that you would see Indiana Jones walking through. You can imagine that he has a desk here, off in a corner office on the second floor. You can imagine him with notebook and pen staring at artifacts and scribbling down his interpretations of ancient script of just where that ‘holy grail’ might be. The interior of the museum is lush and reflects a 1920s – 1930s interior. If you’ve seen Raiders of the Lost Ark, it will ring true to the series.
–From OI website (below).
Since its establishment in 1919, The Oriental Institute has sponsored archaeological and survey expeditions in every country of the Near East.
The University of Chicago has been a center of ancient Near Eastern studies ever since its founding in 1891. The goals of The Oriental Institute have remained essentially unchanged: to document and study the languages, history and cultures of the ancient Near East. Today the task is made easier by advances in technology. New computer registration methods are employed to record and trace artifacts from the field to the archaeological laboratories and museum galleries. Video techniques and computer imaging are being employed in field excavations to produce final and complete documentation of each day’s work.
The most impressive part of the museum for me is the great hall where is displayed the Yelda Khorsabad Court. It recreates part of the interior of a palace courtyard of king Sargon II of Assyria (ca. 721–705 BC), dominated by the most spectacular object in the Mesopotamian collection — the 16-foot tall, 40-ton, human-headed winged bull (lamassu). The lamussu and the adjacent reliefs, which include images of king Sargon and his son, and later king, Sennacherib, were excavated by the Oriental Institute between 1928–1935 at Sargon’s capital city Dur-Sharrukin (modern Khorsabad).
Stand in front of this, and you feel dwarfed by the remarkable level of skill and talent that it took to create such a room. Stand in the middle of it. Doff your fedora to those ancients that created it. It feels like a place where visitors of the kingdom would be received. It has enough ‘wow factor’ to put you in your place, especially if you come from a village with a few huts, some sheep, and a bull name Atep.
However, my close second is the Bull Guardian of Persepolis that sits in a different room. It looms over you with its massive presence.
I made a small comparison while I was in that room. There is the gargantuan bull looming over you on one side of the room, and on the other side a delicate perfume bottle. These are amazing skills of an obviously ancient and intelligent people.
These are other types of mysteries that await you as you wander around the galleries. Check out a ventriloquist eagle controlled by the priestly class, and an exhibit of Nubian Egyptian grandeur. Yes, the Nubians had their own pyramids. Cool.
If you feel like getting lost, to dream, and wonder of the possibilities of the ancient world, this is the museum to see. I don’t believe that most people know of its existence, and because it is so far from downtown most people will not make the effort to seek it out. YOU SHOULD! It’s worth the cab ride. Next time you’re in Chicago have your own little adventure and seek it out.
Mors est A.P. Style dux
(Editor’s note added 2021) Just a few years ago a University of Chicago press release declaring it does not support trigger warnings or safe places. They tied this to academic freedom, and declaring that being uncomfortable is part of academic experience).
Rob’s Fission Story: Not totally proud of this story but I am telling it for it relates how history is a part of our world. In the 70s my brother was visiting a friend. ‘J’ was a great guy, but in his youth was a bit on the wild side and felt things more deeply than most. If you want to argue the morality of the lesson of this tale, please do. I just need to relate the circumstances. ‘J’ was walking by the memorial to the Fission Experiment when he noticed a tour group of Japanese students visiting the campus. The guide stopped them in front of the exhibit to show them the odd mushroom like sculpture dedicated to the first self-sustaining controlled nuclear reaction. The Japanese students began to whisper, and the words (in English) “Atomic bomb” was said quite a few times. ‘J’ lost his temper and shouted “BATANN DEATH MARCH” at the tour group before getting “the hell” out of there.