The Oriental Institute's "Our Work": Eight days (BCE) a week | Art Review | Chicago Reader

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The Oriental Institute's "Our Work": Eight days (BCE) a week

The museum puts ancient tools into the hands of modern-day laborers.


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To Emily Teeter, an Egyptologist and a curator at the Oriental Institute, the objects in the museum's display cases represent the origins of modern civilization, tools people used to do their daily work. To the rest of us, they look like oddly shaped pieces of stone and clay.

"A lot of professions in the modern world were invented in the ancient Middle East," says Teeter. She thinks people should know more about them. So she went through the museum's holdings and found objects that related to 24 different professions. She found 24 people who do those jobs today and asked Jason Reblando, a photographer, to take pictures of them with the objects. The photos are now on display as "Our Work: Modern Jobs—Ancient Origins." Some jobs—doctor, potter, baker—you'd expect to be thousands of years old. Others—manicurist, game manufacturer, real estate broker—you wouldn't.

The modern workers are a diverse group of Chicagoans and one Clevelander. Some were acquaintances of Teeter's. Some she found through word-of-mouth or Internet searches. One, brewer Patrick Conway, was already working with archaeologists at the museum to make beer following an ancient Sumerian recipe. (Teeter considered including the profession considered the world's oldest, then rejected it: "I didn't want anyone to get arrested.")

Originally Reblando planned to take the photos on color film, but almost immediately he switched to tintypes, which, he thought, blur the line between past and present. They're also his own profession's version of an ancient relic. He made only one concession to modernity. Since the chemicals on tintype film react so slowly to light, exposure times last several minutes—an eternity if you're not allowed to move. Reblando used a shorter exposure and compensated with an extremely bright flash.

While Reblando photographed the subjects, videographer Matthew Cunningham interviewed them about the changes in their jobs over thousands of years, or lack thereof. Police office Leo Schmitz was surprised and pleased that there were cops in Egypt in 1127 BCE, but he imagined they would investigate a tomb robbery the same way he would. "Police are police, no matter where they are in the world," he said.

Physician Kelly Nicholas, on the other hand, thought a 2,700-year-old Babylonian medical text had very little to do with his own work, mostly because it attributes illness not to biological but to supernatural factors. But then he began to consider what medicine might be like 2,700, or even 100, years from now: "Much of what we do today will be considered ludicrous."

The objects made some of the subjects a bit wistful. "This is so much more elegant than all those papers," said realtor Margie Smigel, examining the Sumerian "Chicago Stone," the world's oldest real estate record. "It would be nice if at least your deed were in stone. Wouldn't it be lovely to carry home your tablet or your deed from your closing?"

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