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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.


Don’t tell me what you see, but what you feel

Today, we’re traveling to a city close to Navarra, Logroño,  (La Rioja ) notice, with ñ, a Spanish letter you don’t have in English and sounds like “nya”. Logroño is well worth the visit. In some streets you can enjoy the cute Museum of La Rioja, The Cathedral, and the cultural center, Amos Salvador, once a cigar factory. And more, in this area of the city you can try delicious “tapas” or “pinchos” with the wine for which this region and its wineries is famous all over the world.

Some time ago, people who work in the Educational department of The Art Institute of Chicago provided me with some very useful material: “Tips for Leading Discussions About Art” and with it, I prepared this activity at the Museum of La Rioja.

En la puerta del museo

After giving students time to loo, I asked about their feelings in front of a painting, not to describe what they see. We did this with two different Spanish paintings. “Divine Light”, an oil on canvas by Lorenzo Aguirre Sánchez. And “The Toilette” by Federico Godoy.

At this point I have to say is very difficult for young people to express themselves , they have a kind of fear of ridicule.

LUz Divina


Looking at “Divine Light”, the oldest in the group gave the first answer. “It gives me a sensation of sadness, of prayer, of loneliness, reflection…” they say. In the end everybody talked.

“Why do you have this feeling?”

“Because of the colour, the disposition of characters, the room itself.”

Some of them say this painting reminded them some paintings of Edward Hopper

Then we looked at Federico Godoy’s “The Toilette” a scene of beauty and joy inside a popular house.

Deatlle de una pintura

What some people said here is that they feel more peaceful because of the colours, and because the characters are inside their own houses, in their spaces and yards where they live everyday, not in hospitals, orphanages, or jails.

We also visited the medieval rooms where the restorer Teresa Calvo answered questions from the team about problems with wood sculpture. Some of the boys who were biology students asked about the problem of fungi and woodworms

En las salas


Then we had free time for watching videos in the areas they were most interested.

After that, we visited the “Dali Sueña los caprichos de Goya” exhibit, which means: “Dali’s Dreams About Whims of Goya” about great artists in Spain, with Goya as a precursor of contemporary art.

Amós Salvador

Here you have the link of this, though it is only available in Spanish.

It was about 13.00 a good time for tapas in Spain. We were all having so much fun that we forgot to take pictures of the team enjoying the food. But in any case here are some picture of the tapas. Remember Calle del Laurel and streets around it if you come to Logroño!



And to end the amazing day, we visited the old castle of Clavijo, even though there are only ruins, they are as incredible as the landscape you can see from the top.


This was a great excursion you can try if you come to La Rioja.

Welcome to Spain and thanks for following Patrimonio Para Jóvenes.