The Detroit Institute of Arts will reopen its much-expanded Ancient Middle East gallery Friday, at a time when ISIS is destroying priceless archeological sites across Syria and Iraq.
The new 2,855-square-foot permanent gallery on the museum’s first floor will display 177 pieces spanning 8,500 years, with examples from the ancient Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Roman and the Arabian empires.
“It’s an important but heartbreaking time to be associated with Middle East antiquities,” says Geoff Emberling, assistant research scientist at the University of Michigan’s Kelsey Museum of Archeology who helped curate the DIA exhibit.
“With ISIS’s recent depredations,” he added, “we’re reminded of the importance of collections like this.”
In some cases, DIA artifacts come from sites recently demolished by advancing ISIS forces, including a huge carved-stone royal scene taken from a well-preserved Assyrian palace in Nimrud, in northern Iraq. Emberling says militants blew the building up with barrel bombs in March.
In a disturbing but smart choice, the label accompanying the Nimrud stone panel includes vivid satellite images of the site before and after ISIS’s demolition.
No artifacts from Palmyra, the splendidly preserved Roman city in Syria currently under threat by militants, are included in the gallery. The museum has one second century A.D. funerary sculpture from Palmyra, Emberling says, but it’s housed in the museum’s Classical gallery.
“I tried very hard to get it,” he says with a laugh, “but did not succeed.”
On Oct. 11, the museum will host a 2 p.m. lecture titled “Vulnerable Heritage: Protecting the Cultural Artifacts of Syria and Iraq.”
Other objects on display include cuneiform clay tablets, the earliest form of writing, as well as mosaics, metalwork, jewelry and finely crafted gold and silver coins bearing the likeness of long-forgotten rulers.
The first exhibits focus on four evolving technologies that had a huge impact on cultural and artistic production — stone carving, ceramics, metalworking and writing.
“The big idea for the gallery,” says Swarupa Anila, DIA director of interpretive engagement, “was the interplay between art and technology in these early empires. We’re pushing visitors to appreciate the human ingenuity behind the objects,” she adds, “not just their age.”
In the case of ceramics, Emberling notes that the potter’s wheel makes its appearance at the same time wheels were first used in transport. “It’s a ripple effect,” he says, “that highlights how a technology can spread out beyond its original use.”
In some cases, however, the age of the pieces on display is simply staggering. The oldest artifact, notes Birgitta Augustin, associate curator of Asian Art, is a small stone hand ax from 8,000 B.C.
“It’s actually the oldest artifact in this building,” Augustin says.
The second half of the exhibition is devoted to four key empires — Assyria, Babylonia, Persia and later empires including Rome and the Arabian Kingdom.
Some of the works in the gallery, like the stone ax, are more functional than beautiful. But others are breathtaking — notably a large, glazed-tile panel of a dragon taken from the Ishtar Gate in the ancient city of Babylon, built around 575 B.C.
To help visitors visualize four architectural fragments in their original setting, there’s an excellent short video that operates much like Google Earth, dramatically zooming in from a map of the entire region to the specific city and building where the artifact originated.
Amusingly, when the video zooms back out to the map, you briefly pass through a layer of clouds — a nice, humorous touch that’s sure to tickle children.
‘Ancient Middle East Gallery’
Detroit Institute of Arts, 5200 Woodward, Detroit
9 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays; 9 a.m.-10 p.m. Fridays; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays
Free to Wayne, Oakland and Macomb residents, and DIA members
All others: $12.50 adults, $8 seniors, $7 college students with ID, $6 children age 6-17; free children 6 and younger
2 p.m. Oct. 11 lecture: “Vulnerable Heritage: Protecting the Cultural Artifacts of Syria and Iraq”