Looking while people look

The Oriental Institute (OI) was founded in 1919 to be an institution that studied the ancient cultures of the Middle East at the University of Chicago. Its collection holds more than 350.000 artifacts and its mission is to preserve, facilitate research and educate”. This information, the first that guests read when entering the galleries, is etched into my mind. It is not a surprise as I must have read it a hundred times.

Some months ago, while in my mission to discover all the museums in Chicago, I arrived at the Oriental Institute for the first time. At the time, the OI was one of the first in the city to reopen. Although there were masks, social distancing, and time constraints I was extremely happy to be back inside a museum after so long. That might have also affected my boldness when after my visit I went to the lobby and asked… “Do you have any openings?” Luckily for me, they did. And after a few emails, interviews, and safety training I donned my uniform and started my job as a gallery attendant.

My main role is to ensure guests’ comfort and safety while in the museum. Currently, this sometimes means having to remind visitors of Covid-19 regulations -my most uttered phrase must be “please Sir/Madam, could you please adjust your mask?-. But in general, my shifts are divided between answering questions, reading museum labels when the galleries are empty, and just seeing how people look and engage with the artifacts. I was surprised by how much I learned just by doing the latter


When I started my journey at the Oriental Institute I expected certain behaviors and questions. After all, I had been to many museums in my lifetime and I had interacted with gallery attendants before. And while people do ask for the bathroom, Wifi password, exit, closing time, or Covid-19 policies, these questions are not as common as I thought. Most guests approach me curious about the artifacts themselves. Sometimes, these encounters make for funny anecdotes such as the young man who asked me to explain the whole Mesopotamia exhibit for him because “he did not want to read anymore”. Or the student who argued with me that the cuneiform tablets could not be translated because “how would they know how to understand them if they were not there?”.

However, the most common question has always been “is this an original?”. This was asked in reference to almost anything: the mummies in the Egypt room, the ceramics in the Mesopotamia gallery or the gigantic bull of Persia -to name a few- were all artifacts I got quizzed about. Furthermore, visitors from very diverse backgrounds, ages, and behaviors in the exhibition would coincide in this question. From 12 year olds to to retired grandmothers.

The question in itself was not surprising. After visiting other museums in Illinois I saw that finding real-size reproductions of historical objects and environments was not uncommon. Some examples could be the White House in Abraham Lincoln’s Museum in Springfield or the Jazz Club in Chicago’s History Museum. It was not surprising then for guests to question whether the lamassu they saw was or not the real deal.

However, what perplexed me was the reaction to my affirmative answer – artifacts are real besides a few labeled casts made in a different color-. There was amazement and glee when considering the age of the objects -many even quoted how smart “their ancestors” were – but the casts also had positive reactions. There was no loss of interest in an object because it had been identified as a copy, people would still photograph it and spend time observing it. Authenticity did not seem to matter or at least it was not needed to appreciate the object.

Questions regarding authenticity and visitor expectations are more complex than what I can conclude by just watching people for a few months. But they have now resurfaced in my mind after this experience. I have enjoyed my work as a gallery assistant and now that my days in Chicago come to a close I will be sad to abandon it. I leave hoping that my time in the OI has helped guests enjoy and reclaim the physical space that is a museum.

I would like to thank my coworkers -especially Miguel for posing with me for the photos- for all their conversations, and my boss Vick Cruz -Manager of Visitor Services and Security– for taking the amazing photos that enhance this article.

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1 Comment

  • Reply
    19/05/2021 at 11:14

    Thank you for sharing your experience María! Now I really want to visit OI, specially if it is you who will be showing me around 😀

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