The Oriental Institute

17 Feb
image from Oriental Institute

The Oriental Institute

-by Diana Yost

On the University of Chicago campus there is a museum called the Oriental Institute. The museum houses an impressive collection of ancient Middle Eastern artifacts, including copies of Hammurabi’s Code, the Rosetta Stone, and items from King Tut’s tomb. I was fortunate enough to live in Hyde Park (where the University of Chicago is located) for a while and quickly became familiar with the Oriental Institute. I loved that the University provided public access to its extensive collection for free and I took full advantage of it.

At the time I was living there and frequenting the museum, I never gave much thought to the title of the institute. To me, the “Oriental” was simply a reference to a geographical region. After all, the collection held artifacts from areas of Nubia, Egypt, the Levant and other areas of ancient Mesopotamia, so I saw the title fitting to its substance. Plus, the University of Chicago is a prominent university, so surely the name was accurate in the representation of the collection.

Recently, however, I read a book written by Edward Said, titled Orientalism. Essentially, Said discusses how the term “oriental” came into use and what it stands for. Said brings up the argument that the orient as we know it is actually a Western construct of the East. The word is just a reference to the “other,” the “inferior,”  something opposite of the West. Basically, it is the Western perception of the unfamiliar East. It is the reason Westerners traveled to the East, excavated the land, and brought back to Europe and America the exotic artifacts that we now get to enjoy in museums.

While reading this book, I couldn’t help but think about the Oriental Institute. I suddenly found the name of the museum questionable, thinking it is along the same lines as calling a museum about Native Americans an “Indian” museum. The Oriental Institute was created in the 1920s, and its collection was brought to the University from professors and students of the University who traveled to these places. At the time, the name purely indicated the location of where the artifacts originated. Today, I think the name brings on a whole new meaning. It is a reminder of the past, when Westerns, including Americans, justified their power over others.


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