(Photo courtesy Special Collections Research Center)

Curators’ choice

Keepers of University collections reveal the pieces closest to their hearts.

Ask curators on campus to name favorite works entrusted to their care and they respond like parents asked to single out a favorite child. Whether 19th-century portraits or experimental sculpture, ancient artifacts or contemporary manuscripts, each item has its own personality. And, like one’s children, none are less loved. At least that’s what you’re supposed to tell people. But dig a little deeper and most curators will confess that certain items hold a special place in their heart—and these tend to come with a story. For example, Smart Museum of Art director Anthony Hirschel gravitates toward pieces that play with viewers’ expectations, such as Louis Dupré’s 1819 portrait of a French consul to Greece (below). “This French diplomat wanted to be sure of the legacy he was leaving,” Hirschel observes. With the Acropolis jutting up in the distance and coffee being served while he sits at his easel, Monsieur Fauvel “wants us to see he was a supremely cultured individual, even somewhat dismissive of us.” It’s a 19th-century approach to a very modern dilemma: creating one’s personal brand. “I just love this painting,” Hirschel says. “He really got what he wanted from this artist.” At the library, Special Collections Research Center director Daniel Meyer, AM’75, PhD’94, points to collections whose uses evolve as researchers bring new perspectives to them. In addition to Hirschel and Meyer, the Magazine spoke to assistant University librarian Alice Schreyer and to Jack Green and Emily Teeter, PhD’90, at the Oriental Institute. In the following pages, you can peek inside their heads—and hearts—through the objects that most captivate them.

Tony Hirschel, Director, Smart Museum of Art

In Korea, many potters still fashion vessels in a traditional 18th- and 19th-century style. When something goes amiss in the firing process, they smash the object. Artist Yeesookyung purchases these broken fragments and pieces them together in an unusual shape using gold lacquer in the traditional manner used to restore wooden Buddhist temple statues. But that’s not the only surprise. “Even though the shape is unexpected, we assume that when you look inside, it would still be a vessel,” says Hirschel. Instead, the artist closes off the opening entirely. “She’s taking things that were intended to be functional and telling us, ‘This is a work of art. It has no other purpose.’”

American modernist Arthur Dove loved to toy with his audiences. “When you first glance at this painting, it seems as if it’s a completely coherent landscape: a sailboat on the water with a sunset,” Hirschel says, noting that Dove spent much of the 1920s on a houseboat in Long Island Sound. “But when you really think about what’s here, he confounds your expectations. If that’s a sailboat, where did those reflected conifer trees come from? And how is the sunset in front of the trees? He’s really playing with notions of modernism.” Just as intriguing is the story of the painting’s acquisition. In his final will, local collector John S. Anderson, MFA’60, bequeathed a half interest in the work to the Smart and the other half to his devoted full-time caretaker in the latter days of his life. Over the next decade, the museum purchased the woman’s half, providing her an ongoing income as Anderson had intended. “He was nice to the museum,” Hirschel says, “but he was also nice to her.”

Jack Green, Chief Curator, Oriental Institute

Situated along the bustling trade route between Egypt and Syria, the ancient city of Megiddo (in modern-day Israel) was a crossroads of globalization in the late Bronze Age. A massive archaeological excavation here by the Oriental Institute in the 1920s and ’30s unearthed 382 pieces of carved ivory in a palace cellar. Combs, ointment containers, and decorative trinkets bearing aesthetic influences from surrounding regions were stacked in a single room. “We actually don’t know why all these pieces were found together,” though people have been known for several centuries to hoard and collect ivory, says Green. Even more mysterious, the treasure pile was topped with the remains of a dead cow, perhaps as part of a sacrifice or ritual. The OI holds the only collection of Megiddo ivories in North America. “They’re wonderful because they really show the trade connections in the eastern Mediterranean at that time.”

This well-preserved ivory sphinx speaks to Megiddo as a cultural crossroads infused with the influence of globalization. Though situated far from Egypt, locals created artistic objects that captured their perceptions of the distant land. “They’re taking an Egyptian motif—the sphinx—and combining it with other motifs that might be thought to be Egyptian to create this hybrid,” Green says. “But it’s really not something that you’d normally see in ancient Egypt.” Resident Egyptologist Emily Teeter adds, “an Egyptian would look at this and think, ‘It’s supposed to be Egyptian? You’ve got to be kidding me.’”

“If I had to choose one object amongst all of them, this gaming board would probably be it,” says Green. Designed for a Parcheesi-like pastime of the upper crust known as the “game of 58 holes,” this “super luxe” item was a sign of worldly sophistication. Made of fragile elephant ivory, the piece retains much of its gold embellishment and is one of few such boards ever discovered intact. “You could imagine a governor or wealthy Canaanite mayor using one of these,” Green says. “An international-style gaming board was very much the fashionable thing.”

Emily Teeter, Egyptologist and Research Associate, Oriental Institute

“I love the resonance of ancient and modern in this piece,” Teeter says, describing an expansive papyrus scroll that details a northern Egyptian marriage contract from 364–365 BC. Written in Demotic script, a later form of hieroglyphics, the document specifies that the man must provide his wife a set amount of silver and grain each year—for life. “He has to continue to pay this, regardless of what house she’s living in,” says Teeter, explaining that divorce, much like now, was quite common in ancient Egypt. “There was no real stigma to it.” Penned on multiple sheets of costly papyri affixed together, each of which features only a small amount of text, the contract itself was a status symbol for the couple. “They didn’t need this much papyrus,” says Teeter. “They’re showing off.”

This limestone plaque inscribed with cursive hieroglyphics chronicles the first recorded labor strike in Egyptian history, circa 1153 BC. “It’s such a humble-looking object, but it says so much about the society,” Teeter says. After being shorted on pay, builders constructing tombs for Ramesses III’s sons in the Valley of the Queens walked off the work site and put down their tools at a local temple. “We are exceedingly impoverished,” they wrote to the vizier overseeing the project. Though the plaque itself breaks off midtext, the result—the tombs were finished—attests to a successful strike. “People think of ancient societies where the pharaoh is all powerful,” Teeter says, “but there was a lot of give-and-take.”

Daniel Meyer, Director, Special Collections Research Center

In this 1923 schematic drawing, a preliminary version of Chicago sociologist Ernest W. Burgess’s theoretical model of urban structure, the concentric rings map the distribution of social groups within city space, starting with a central business district at the core. The drawing, Meyer says, graced the sociology department’s faculty conference room wall for many years until professor Andrew Abbott, AM’75, PhD’82, proposed to give other researchers access by moving it to Special Collections. A digital facsimile now hangs in its place in the sociology department.

This vibrant biblical miniature comes from a 17th-century illuminated manuscript depicting the Revelation. Christ stands tall with a scroll and orb, poised next to seven candlesticks as the apostle John writes. The colloquial Greek translation is attributed to Maximos the Peloponnesian, believed to be an Alexandrian archdeacon. The item, Meyer says, highlights the University’s diverse compilation of 68 New Testament texts penned in early Greek, Syriac, Ethiopic, Armenian, Arabic, and Latin.

Alice Schreyer, Assistant University Librarian for Humanities, Social Sciences, and Special Collections

“About five or six years ago, we got a gift from a collector who wanted to trace the transmission of Homeric texts from their first appearance in print in the 1480s,” says Alice Schreyer. “It gave us enormous strength, almost overnight.” Today Iliad scholars are drawn to Special Collections to study the library’s many print editions. Among them is a “relatively obscure” pocket-sized Greek version published by Venetian humanist Aldus Manutius in 1504 (right). The edition, which contains unidentified handwritten annotations, was part of a modestly priced series that significantly boosted interest in the classics throughout Italy. Other items in the windfall gift include the first comprehensive Homeric English translation, George Chapman’s definitive 1616 The Whole Works of Homer (left), and Richmond Lattimore’s The Iliad of Homer (1951), a favorite of Chicago undergraduates (center).