“Head of a goddess,” Iraq, excavated from Ur, Akkadian Period, 2350–2150 BCE; marble, shell, and lapis lazuli; H: 3 ¾ in. (9.5 cm), W: 3 1⁄8 in. (8 cm), D: 3 3⁄8 in. (8.5 cm); University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Joint British Museum/University Museum Expedition to Mesopotamia, 4th Season, 1925–1926, B16228

In 1996, a vacant building that was once the telephone company Pacific Northwest Bell, was purchased with the support from philanthropist Hallie Ford and her foundation, the Ford Family Foundation.   The 1960s era building was turned into the Hallie Ford Museum of Art which now features permanent and temporary galleries, state-of-the-art collection storage, a lecture hall, and offices.  In 2005, Hallie Ford provided an endowment gift to support art historical exhibitions – which is how our local university’s museum can put on an exhibition of the magnitude of “Breath of Heaven, Breath of Earth: Ancient Near Eastern Art from American Collections.”

This is not an ordinary exhibit one stumbles across; “Breath of Heaven, Breath of Earth” is a major exhibit that took approximately seven years for Hallie Ford Museum Director John Olbrantz and co-curator Trudy Kawami (Director of Research at the Arthur M. Sackler Foundation) to put together.  Olbrantz didn’t pause when he ballparked the figure for this extraordinary show, “about a quarter of a million.” Although the Hallie Ford Exhibition Fund, which comes from the endowment gift from Hallie Ford, provides a bulk of the funding, it doesn’t cover everything.  Some of the other funding sources include:  A $30K Art Works Grant from the National Endowment of the Arts, the city’s Transient Occupancy Tax Fund, and the Oregon Arts Commission.

An exhibit of this magnitude – researching, requesting, receiving, and displaying 64 works from 20 institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art – is a finely choreographed dance taking thousands of hours and expertise.  There is a loan process that each requested piece must go through – that is if the piece made it through all the required steps and was permitted to loan.  Each piece is evaluated by the lending institution in preparation for travel.   This can include cleaning, special conservation processes, special mounts built within the packaging, crating, insurance, and couriers.  Many of the pieces were required to be unpacked at Hallie Ford by a curator or conservator employed by the lender.

After the arrival of the artwork, an entirely different type of work begins – the display and creation of the exhibition.  Each piece has very specific set of requirements for display – the temperature and humidity must be controlled for every piece.  Plexiglas boxes are made on site – each custom “house” has climate control and security alarms.  Displays are organized by themes, walls are painted, and large wall-mounted maps are designed – the space transforms into a story about life from a time many do not associate with the development of civilization.

The exhibition features the art from the Fertile Crescent, also known as the “cradle of civilization,” which covers the area stretching from Turkey to Iran.  The artwork represents several thousand years, as recent as 500 BCE (Before Common Era) to as early as 6000 BCE.  Olbrantz explains that when looking at all the pieces spanning several cultures and regions, “it made sense to organize the exhibit into three themes: Divine Realm, Human Realm, and Animal Realm.”

One of the pieces, a boundary marker (featured on the left), was a land grant given by the king of Babylon, Marduk-apla-iddin, to the son of Sin-bel.  Olbrantz explained that they had received the translation earlier in the week and found that there is a curse associated with the marker. The partially preserved curse reads:

“[Whomsoever] buries [this kudurru] in the dust or incorporates [it] in a wall or places it where it cannot be seen…or who erases the inscribed names or ignores the word of the king, Marduk-apla-iddina, or changes his wording…
May the gods Sin, Adad and Gula, the gods protecting the house of [the descendant of] Adad-nasir, rip out his foundation, collect and destroy his seed and obliterate his name!
An, Enlil. Ea and Belet-ili, the great gods of Heaven & earth…will give him deafness of ears & paralyze his limbs as their gift.”

Hopefully,  placing the boundary in a prominent location, under lights, in a specially designed, climate controlled case as they have done – Olbrantz and his staff are safe.

Exhibition Related Events

Family Activity Day
Oct 12 from Noon-4 p.m.
Hallie Ford Museum of Art, Maribeth Collins Lobby
Children will learn about cylinder seals, repoussé and chasing, and different archaeological techniques. Education curator Elizabeth Garrison, Salem artists Sonia Allen and Helen Nute Wiens, and CASA coordinator April Miller will guide families through a variety of art-making and archaeological activities related to the exhibition.

Lecture Series

Breath of Heaven, Breath of Earth:
Ancient Near Eastern Art from American Collections
Dr. Trudy Kawami
Sept 6, 5pm Paulus Lecture Hall, WU

Return to Babylon: Travelers, Archaeologists, and Monuments in Mesopotamia
Dr. Brian Fagan
Sep 12, 7:30pm Hudson Concert Hall, WU

Gifts for the Gods: Sumerian Art from the Temple
Dr. Jean Evans
Sep 26, 7:30pm
Paulus Lecture Hall, WU

King of the Four Quarters of the World: The Art and Architecture of Assyrian Kingship
Dr. Marian Feldman
Oct 10, 7:30pm Paulus Lecture Hall, WU

Syria and the Levant: Life in the Lands of the Hebrew Bible
Dr. Ronald Wallenfels
Oct 24, 7:30pm Paulus Lecture Hall, WU

Lions, Bulls, Snakes, and Scorpions:
Animals in Ancient Iranian Art and Thought
Dr. Holly Pittman
Nov 7, 7:30pm Paulus Lecture Hall, WU

Film Series

Film series featuring Agatha Christie’s archaeologically inspired murder mysteries with character Hercule Poirot.
7:30 p.m. at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art, Roger Hull Lecture Hall

Oct 1 – Death on the Nile
Oct 15 – Murder in Mesopotamia
Oct 29 – Appointment with Death
Nov 12 – Murder on the Orient Express

Stories from Ancient Mesopotamia
2:00 p.m. at Hallie Ford Museum of Art: Melvin Henderson-Rubio Gallery

September 28 – Rhetorics of Kingship
from Shulgi to Sennacherib
October 26 – Creation and Destruction:
Conceiving and Considering Cities
November 9 – Common Sense from
an Uncommon Time: Performing
Sumerian Proverbs and Fables