The Oriental Institute Museum of the University of Chicago Review – “Catastrophe!”

Yelda Khorsabad Court

A good friend of mine was visiting Chicago recently and was very interested in seeing the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago.  There were two main reasons; one was that she remembered being there thirty years ago and wanted to see how it compared and the other is that she had recently been in Egypt and wanted to see comparisons to other museums she’d been to dealing with similar subject matter.  She was very impressed and believed that the Oriental Institute is an amazing place and hold its own in comparison to museums dealing with similar topics.

Iraq exhibit

She wasn’t here to view the most recent exhibit: “Catastrophe! The Looting and Destruction of Iraq’s Past”.  The exhibit opened on April 10 to mark the fifth anniversary of the looting of the Iraq National Museum in Baghdad and will stay until December 31, 2008.  Although the looting of the Iraq Museum was widely publicized in the international press, it is less well known that ongoing looting of archaeological sites, poses an even greater threat to the cultural heritage of Iraq. This exhibit, though small, contains very powerful images and very important information.

Looted artifacts

Iraq, ancient Mesoopotamia, is the cradle of civilization, the region that spawned the seminal inventions of writing, the calendar, the wheel and even the concept of cities. As the homeland of the Sumerian, Assyrian, and Babylonian empires, and the capital of the early Islamic Abbasid Empire, Iraq continued to be important. The history of the world that we know quite literally begins in Mesopotamia, making the loss of its cultural patrimony a loss for all humanity.

This exhibit is organized around the following themes:


    * The importance of archaeology to history and identity: Why does the past matter? What can it tell us about our community and ourselves?
    * Looting and damage to archaeological sites: dramatic photographs, including recent satellite images, show illicit looting and destruction of sites.
    * The threat of war: combat damage and the more significant construction damage being done by the US military at important sites including Babylon, Ur, and Samarra
    * The importance of archaeological context: how much context can tell us about an object and about the culture from which it came.
    * Looted artifacts: the routes that looted artifacts take from Iraq to art markets around the world, and where seizures have been made.
    * The Iraq Museum five years later: what in fact was looted and the progress of recovery efforts to date.
    * What has been done and what can be done? The exhibit examines what efforts are and can be made to stem the looting of archaeological sites in Iraq and on a local and national level throughout the world

A goal of the exhibit is to encourage people to think about the importance of archaeology and cultural heritage throughout the world, to ask questions such as: Why is archaeology important? What does the past mean to my family, my community, my nation and me? What can be done to preserve the past? How can individuals and communities as well as larger bureaucratic organizations safeguard the records of the past?

The importance of context

Since the invasion of 2003, the devastation in Iraq has been staggering. There is great concern both for the suffering of the Iraqi people and the continuing destruction of Iraqi cultural heritage.  This irreplaceable loss of Iraq’s cultural heritage is a loss to us all.

“Looters systematically destroy the remains of this civilization in their tireless search for sellable artifacts. [This] ancient [city]— if properly excavated—could have provided extensive new information concerning the development of the human race.”
Joanne Farchakh-Bajjaly; Archaeologist and journalist; September, 2007

Archeologists and Police on patrol

The Oriental Institute Museum is located at 1155 East 58th Street, Chicago. The Museum is open Tuesday, Thursday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., Wednesday from 10:00 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., and Sunday from noon to 6:00 p.m. Suggested donation for admission is $5 for adults, $2 for children. For information, call (773) 702-9514 or go to:

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