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Oriental Institute Connects Workers with Their Most Ancient Colleagues

By Sam Cholke | August 21, 2013 4:24pm
 A new photo exhibit at the Oriental Institute pairs modern workers with their ancient counterparts.
Our Work at Oriental Institute
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HYDE PARK — South Siders are paired with their 4,000-year-old colleagues for a new exhibit on the permanence of work at the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago.

“Our Work: Modern Jobs — Ancients Origins,” which opened Tuesday at the 1155 E. 58th St., puts artifacts from the world’s first occupations in the hands of their contemporary practitioners in a series of 24 tin-type photographs.

“What we want to show people is that many of these professions are still around,” said curator Emily Teeter, pointing to a statue of the chief of police in the Medjay in Thebes, Egypt, in 1127 B.C.

Teeter said that police in ancient Thebes still investigated robberies and burglaries, just like the Leo Schmitz, the deputy chief of the Englewood Police District.

“Well, I know that the Medjay chief of police was a chief back in the Egyptian times, but what was pretty profound to me was that back then, he was doing the same thing I’m doing,” Schmit said in an interview for the exhibit. “It’s good to hear that the police profession has been going on that long.”

Teeter said it’s important to understand how long ago this really was. The statue was made 200 years after King Tutankhamun ruled Egypt and 500 years before Plato or Socrates would found Western philosophy in Greece.

“This is 500 years before Herodotus,” Teeter said of the man thought to be first to systematically record historical events. “This is so far before any of them.”

Teeter said the museum let photographer Jason Reblando and interviewer Matthew Cunningham take the lead on the project.

“We stayed completely out of it,” Teeter said, adding that the visceral responses were amazing from people like Mario Silva, a baker at the Medici.

Silva, who makes about 1,200 loaves of bread a day at the 1327 E. 57th St. bakery, is pictured holding a clay bread pan from ancient Egypt from the museum’s collection.

“From what I know, the Egyptians used this to bake bread,” Silva said in an interview for the exhibit. “They put the dough they prepared in it and heated it up, but I don’t really know how it was accomplished.

“No, the truth is I wouldn’t know how to use this bread mold today, but it is very interesting,” Silva said, adding that he imagined Egyptian bread to be sour but agreeable.

The exhibit, which runs through Feb. 23, also includes manicurists, ship builders, brewers, and other professions.

“Part of it is also the dignity of work, these are dignified jobs,” Teeter said, adding that she was happy the museum was able to get the exhibit up before Labor Day.