By Lee Lawrence
Wall Street Journal
ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT
JUNE 19, 2010
Given the riches of the Oriental Institute, you might be tempted to skip the modest display of artifacts, letters and photographs commemorating founder James Henry Breasted's first expedition to Egypt and what are now Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Israel.See the chronicle of news about the Oriental Institute.
But resist that urge. In counterpoint to historical materials, some displayed in cases made to look like wooden packing crates, a contemporary narrative mounted on white panels creates a two-track presentation. As a result, "Pioneers to the Past" triggers interesting insights into the way archaeology has evolved.
Breasted, we learn, helped change our understanding of Western civilization, which earlier scholars believed sprang from Greece and Rome. He helped trace its roots instead to what he called "the Fertile Crescent," a curl of land bordered by the Nile, Tigris and Euphrates rivers, where people developed the first cities some 8,000 years ago and four millennia later invented the wheel and writing.
At the end of World War I, with the Ottoman Empire dismantled and the British in control, Breasted saw his chance to advance American scholarship and collections. He writes vividly—if self-servingly—of outsmarting "crafty" merchants and vying with the Metropolitan and Philadelphia museums for cuneiform tablets, bronzes, stone and terracotta figures, and other treasures. (His letters are accessible on the Institute's website, or you can "friend" Breasted on Facebook.)...