Secrets of Storage: Classical Artifacts

by Emelia Lehmann, Inventory, & Research Intern; History AB 2018

last edited on Mon. November 5 2018

While digging through the Smart Museum’s storage during my summer research internship, I was surprised to find a number of antiquities stored amid mid-century chairs and contemporary sculpture. My inventory had become, in a sense, a bit of an excavation.

While it is relatively common for museums to possess artifacts, the Smart’s collection struck me as particularly interesting and extensive. It encompassed everything from ceramic shards to large portions of mosaic flooring and wall frescoes. What was even more intriguing was that these works had been given to the Museum by the University of Chicago’s Department of Classics. In other words, these were original artifacts discovered by the University’s very own archaeologists at digs in the early twentieth century.

When and why had the Smart Museum become the receptacle for the Department’s finds? I had no idea that the answers to these questions would unearth one-hundred years of collaboration and the unusual beginnings of the University’s arts programming.

When the University of Chicago was founded in 1890, there was no Art History Department, nor any degree which focused on the study of art and its historical significance. Instead, art was included as part of the language and classical studies. In this environment, art education was heavily influenced by archaeology and antiquities and taught using an extensive study collection of objects excavated by Chicago archaeologists in Egypt, Greece, and Italy. In 1903, the Department of Archaeology, which oversaw this collection, realized the need for an official art curriculum to support classical studies and developed the Department of the History of Art. Then, in 1923, this department merged with several other arts organizations on campus to become the first Department of Art. This new department was intended to promote the arts as a necessary part of the liberal arts education and provide arts education to all students, regardless of their discipline. Retaining its original focus on antiquity and history, the Department was a unique melding of disciplines brought together to study and understand ‘art’ in a new way.

By the 1970s, the department had become so large and successful that it required a new space dedicated to its collections and curriculum. When it moved to the new Cochrane-Woods Art Center in 1974, much of the Department’s extensive art collection, including these important early classical works, were transferred to the newly founded art gallery, now the Smart Museum of Art. This included over one hundred small antiquities, from pottery sherds and coins to statuettes. Also included were two impressive mosaics, part of an Italian villa floor from the first-century C.E.

At the Smart, which was administratively part of the Department until 1983, these works could be preserved in museum-quality conditions while still remaining accessible to students, faculty and the public. Likewise, works like the Roman mosaics could be placed alongside other architectural elements from the Museum’s collection, like those of Louis Sullivan. These comparisons facilitated greater understanding for students and faculty of the history of art and cultural exchange, and contributed to an ever-expanding body of arts scholarship at the University. 

Today, the presence of these works within the Smart Museum represents the continuation of this history and exchange between the arts and sciences here at the University of Chicago. The University’s arts engagement grew from an early collaboration between departments, incorporating science and history to developing a scholarly understanding of art. In this approach, art wasn’t a separate discipline, but a field which was foundational to a liberal arts education. These classical objects, in particular, point to the development of arts education here at the University and the continued efforts of the University and the Smart Museum to make art and history available to individuals around the world.

This is the fourth in the Secrets of Storage series, where Emelia shares findings uncovered during her collections internship. The first post touched on her research into an unexpected element of Chicago’s architectural history, the second one on Alexander Calder’s tapestries, and the third on the work of Ruth Duckworth