Oriental Institute

Upon its dedication in 1896, the Haskell Oriental Museum was a Christian institute aiming to understand Biblical lands. Its Egyptological collection was premiere in America, but it was pale by global standards. However, the Museum took tremendous leaps forward between 1919 and 1931, led by the Egyptologist James Henry Breasted via the funding of John D. Rockefeller. The Museum's pursuits secularized, collections swelled, facilities moved and even title changed. Thus was born the Oriental Institute, a world-class hub for studying Egyptology and the Near East overall. James Henry Breasted brought the momentum for the changes that dragged the Museum from the 19th century and blasted the Institute through to the 20th century. Breasted's tenacious legacy keeps the Institute relevant into the 21st century, as his brilliance shines in the Egyptian Collections and the Institute overall.

The faculty and values of the University of Chicago made it the perfect home for America's first research center dedicated exclusively to the Holy Lands. Founded in 1891 with a donation by John D Rockefeller, the University of Chicago brought together America's leading scholars on the Near East, a region valued more for its Biblical links than as the cradle of civilization [2] [4b]. Just four years later on the 1st of July 1895, the Museum set the corner stone of the Haskell Oriental Museum, named for Mrs. Caroline Haskell's generous $100,000 donation [1a, 1c, 4a]. Mrs. Haskell's husband Mr. Frederick Haskell had passed away in 1890, leaving her with a $500,000 dower [6]. As a Christian woman in the twilight of her life, the Museum offered her the perfect way to advance Biblical archaeology and to preserve her husband's childless name.

The Haskell Oriental Museum was to be the first institute to bring lux ex oriente (light from the east) from the old world to the new world [1e]. The Museum endeavored to further Near East studies in the context of Biblical understanding and enlightenment. To accomplish this, it had the immediate goal of housing the objects with which the University of Chicago had been blessed; and the long-term goal of proving itself as an intellectual and spiritual blessing. In connection with the University's quinquennial celebration, the Haskell Oriental Museum was dedicated 2nd of July 1896 [1f].

The notion of Near East studies being valid solely in a Christian context was clear every step of the Museum's dedication. The invocation was delivered by the Dean of the Divinity School of the University; it was accompanied by a sung Hebrew Psalter service by the Sinai Congregation. The dedicatory address was delivered upon the subject "From the Rising to the Setting Sun" -- a clever title that reflected revelations in Kemet's religion. Yet despite this seemingly academic endeavor to understand ancient lands, the momentum was proudly Christian,

The thought that the building has been given by a generous Christian woman in order to make possible the broader and deeper study of the world's sacred Scriptures, and especially those of Christianity, is … significant and deeply inspiring. But most significant and most inspiring of all is the deep Christian faith and the generous Christian heart which prompted this magnificent gift for the cause of science and truth. May the significance and the inspiration of the deed impress the heart of every man and woman within the reach of my voice, of every man and woman who in the centuries that are coming shall look upon this beautiful structure. May God bless this woman richly, and may he so order that the building, erected through her generous gift, shall richly bless the world. [1d]

The Egyptian Collection at the Museum was just a few plaster-cast reproductions and a little collection of antiquities [1b]. The collection had been mostly collected by James Henry Breasted from his first trip in Egypt (doubling as his honeymoon) during the winter of 1894-5; Breasted would later revolutionize the Institute. Additional antiquities were donated by British Egyptology darlings Professor Petrie and Mr. Kennard. Petrie sent over some of his findings in Coptos from the winter of 1894-5, with an expectation that Petrie's latest work in Thebes would be deposited in the museum in the coming year. The remaining items in the were replicas of items of other museums, and photos of Egypt. "A large series of casts, especially bas-reliefs from the old empire well represent the monumental materials in the foreign museums. Beside these, the Museum possesses a collection of photographs, nearly 1200 in number, illustrating Egypt and its remains still in situ as well as the chief antiquities of the museums of Gizeh, London, Paris, Florence and the Bibliothéque Nationale." The collection expanded over the next decades by funding oft-amateur British archaeologists, especially via the Egypt Expedition Fund. These excavations were not always fruitful, including a costly failure in Hierakonpolis, but other times they were great successes -- one such win was the discovery of Mentuhotep II's tomb Deir el-Bahri under the auspices of Professor Petrie [12].

The Haskell Oriental Museum was transformed in scope, breadth, vision and even name by Egyptology pioneer James Henry Breasted and University founder John D Rockefeller. James Henry Breasted was born in 1865 in Illinois and lived an incredible life which revolved around Egypt and the Oriental Institute. After becoming the first American to receive a doctorate in Egyptology, Breasted went to Egypt for the first time in 1894 as his honeymoon with the newly wed Mrs. Breasted [8]. His equipment consisted of a donkey and a pocket camera. It was during this expedition that he collected much of the Haskell Oriental Museum's Egyptological collection [1b]. Breasted spent the following decades overseeing the Museum's development and traversing Egypt, including an expedition to Egypt in 1905-7 that produced over a thousand photographs of the land [11]. However it was only in 1919 with funding from Rockefeller that Breasted could begin to truly excavate throughout Egypt, Iran and Iraq. The ensuing expansion of the Museum segued into the creation of the Institute in 1931.

After the creation of the Oriental Institute, Breasted would unfortunately have not much longer to live his incredible life. After his wife died in 1934, he married her younger sister Imogen Richmond in 1935 and they embarked on a honeymoon in Egypt [9] [10]. Unfortunately, Breasted tragically caught a streptococcus infection after leaving Egypt to visit New York for the International Congress of Orientalists; it swiftly took his life, and thus a great lux ex occidens (light from the west) was extinguished. "He envisioned the establishment of a special institute devoted to tracing ancient man’s 'progress' toward civilization, long before the classical civilizations of Greece and Rome" [2]. This vision of the future would result in the Museum ceasing to justify its forays in the Holy Land as a means to Christian enlightenment -- Mesopotamia, the Levant and Egypt were to be studied for their own secular scientific sake in order to gain knowledge. The collections of the Museum swelled rapidly via Breasted's prolific excavations, causing a new facility to be built with a larger capacity -- thus, the Oriental Institute was born.

It was only fitting that Dr. Breasted would be the one to transform the Museum into a world-class Institute. He was the foremost American Egyptologist, being the first American to receive a Ph.D. in Egyptology, and was appointed by President Harper to fill the first teaching position in Egyptian studies in the United States [2]. Breasted was among the earliest to expand beyond Biblical myopia to champion the Near East as a forerunner of Western civilization. This perspective may seem trite by 21st century standards, but in his time the Near East had been valued as an extension of Biblical studies and not as the birthplace of the first civilizations, predecessors to the Western world.

After using his funds to form the University of Chicago, John D Rockefeller kept the University from fading into insignificance when in 1919 he began to actively encourage and sponsor Breasted's forays in the Near East [4b] [2]. As an avid Egyptologist, Breasted uninhibitedly went to great lengths that would later ensure the Institute would glow for eternity. Breasted traveled daringly through Egypt and Mesopotamia as the British Mandate came into effect and the region reeled amidst warfare, unrest and crosshaired British and French troops [4a].

The Oriental Institute was thrusted to the forefront of Egyptology in America, and became among the best institutions worldwide [2]. The Institute conducted excavations at Medinet Habu from 1926 to 1933, unearthing over 8,000 artifacts of the total collection (equivalent to one quarter). The Oriental Institute leapt to the forefront of epigraphy, when in 1924 the Epigraphic Survey was established at Luxor, Egypt (where it remains today). The Epigraphic Survey of the Oriental Institute maintains a staff of Egyptologists and artists to record the rapidly eroding historical sources carved on the ancient monuments.

Rockefeller in 1931 funded the final step in shedding the limitations of the Haskell Oriental Museum -- the creation of a larger space to be known as the Oriental Institute. These new permanent headquarters included laboratories, museum galleries, libraries and offices -- it was America's brilliant hub for studying the rise and development of ancient civilization. Though the newfound Oriental Institute spanned the entire Near East, Dr. Breasted's passion for Egypt influenced even the architecture -- the tympanum over the main entrance depicted an Egyptian scribe presented a wall relief fragment to a figure representing the West [2].

Stunning highlights of the Oriental Institute's Egyptian collection span from the early Old Kingdom to the Ptolemaic Period. Amidst these is a colossal 17' 4" tall statue of Tutankhamun discovered at Medinut Habu, which was reused by subsequent kings [7]. Moving earlier in time to the Old Kingdom are smaller finds which, combined with the Institute's epigraphic tradition, have proved very fruitful. The false door of the courtier Nyswredi (Dynasties IV/V, ~ 2500 B.C.) shows the spirit of the deceased stepping through the portal. This relatively small piece has some damage around the edges, but the inscription is very well intact. Also remarkable is the collection of finds from the Giza tomb of the cemetery official Nykauinpu (Dynasty V, ~ 2477). The finds include twenty-five statues, including depictions of professions and more personal persons such as his wife, his family and household staff. One craftsman statue is of a pottery, one of the earliest known such examples; being a potter was difficult and un-esteemed and the physical toll was made vividly clear [3]. A statue of a butcher shows him preparing an ox that has been tied up (trussed) with the butcher's whetstone (a sharpening tool) tucked into his waistband.

Lux ex Oriente and Lux ex Occidens

The history of the Oriental Institute begins in the 19th century, then climaxes in the early 20th century when perspectives changed, expeditions began and artifacts were brought to America from the (at the time) laissez faire Holy Lands. While expeditions still continue, it is not possible to ever again recreate the Oriental Institute's collection due to current laws in the Near East. Fortunately, fierce figures with wealth of mind and generosity of funds had the foresight to establish one of the glimmering beacons of Egyptology in America. After praising the newly discovered luxe ex orient at the laying of the Museum corner stone, Reverend John Barrows lamented on how "English universities have their towers and chapels and majestic libraries and sculptured gateways" [1e]. He then continued to utter words which would ring true for the University and for America as a whole,

A century hence the Haskell Oriental Museum, now rising, will be surrounded by groups of academic buildings that shall repeat many of the glories so dear to Oxford. Two hundred years hence this University may be the crown of the world's metropolis, a seat of learning like that by the Isis, learning hallowed by time and by sacred memories.
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