March 20, 1997
Vol. 16, No. 13

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    'Buried' treasure: Modern artifact part of OI's addition

    The Oriental Institute, world-renowned for unearthing treasures from ancient civilizations, "buried" an artifact of its own in the framework of its new addition Tuesday. The artwork, called Illuminated Beam, is a 16-foot-long steel beam decorated with adaptations of ancient Near Eastern images, including one image painted in gold leaf. Other images adorning the beam are festooned with brightly colored ground pigments from stones, such as lapis lazuli, typical of the Near Eastern region where institute archaeologists have been digging since the early part of the century.

    The artist for the piece is Chicago painter James Mesple, who specializes in themes from ancient mythology.

    Major donors, faculty and others associated with the institute signed the beam before it was hoisted 30 feet and placed just under the slanting roof of the new wing.

    "Given the Oriental Institute's mission of preserving and interpreting ancient artifacts, it seemed appropriate that we embed a modern representation of some of our museum pieces in the structure of our new wing," said William Sumner, Director of the Oriental Institute. "One can imagine an archaeologist or student in some distant future discovering -- and delighting in -- this message from the 20th century."

    Mesple said he chose the name Illuminated Beam because it describes the wisdom that comes from understanding the cultures of the Near East. He said many of the images he painted on the piece have meaning in many cultures.

    "There is a monumental bull's head from Persia that is part of the Oriental Institute collection, for instance," he said. "The bull plays a prominent role in many cultures' mythologies as a symbol of rebirth and springtime."

    Mesple's images include a winged lion from Persia, painted in gold, and a face from an ancient Egyptian coffin, embellished with a crown of buildings from the Chicago skyline. "The wonderful thing about Near Eastern art is the energy that the pieces communicate. The artifacts in the Oriental Institute Museum, many of which were buried for thousands of years, connect us with people who lived long ago. In the same way, I feel that in being sealed and preserved, this piece will connect us with another culture sometime in the distant future."

    The Oriental Institute Museum collections include more than 100,000 registered objects from the ancient Near East (today's Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Palestine, Israel and Jordan). The construction and climate-control project now underway is the first renovation of the Oriental Institute building since 1931.

    The Oriental Institute addition is a 14,000-square-foot wing for artifact and archival storage as well as library stacks, an expanded conservation lab and an exhibition preparation area. When completed in 1998, the facility improvements will also house a new education center, an Archaeological Research Center for institute faculty and graduate students, an expanded computer laboratory adapted for the analysis of archaeological data, and completely redesigned public galleries.

    The installation marked the completion of the framing of the addition. The next phase is building the addition's stone walls.

    When the first of five galleries reopens in autumn 1998, a new range of objects -- such as furniture, textiles, clothing, Book of the Dead papyri and Egyptian mummies (even those of animals) -- will be displayed.