New museum exhibition features some of the world's oldest artifacts
"Male figure," Iraq, excavated from the Nintu Temple, Mid-to-Late Early Dynastic Period, 2700–2500 BCE; University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Joint Bagdad School/University Museum Expedition to Mesopotamia, 1937, 37-15-28.
"Relief fragment with a battle scene," Iraq, excavated by William Kennett Loftus in August of 1854; Seattle Art Museum, Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection and Hagop Kevorkian, 46.49.
"Standing male figure," Lebanon, from Jezzine, late 3rd–early 2nd millennium BCE; Private collection, New York.
Some said their items were too valuable to travel.
Others said their artifacts were too fragile.
But despite the steady stream of rejections, John Olbrantz never lost sight of his mission: to launch an exhibition of ancient Near Eastern art in the Northwest.
On Aug. 31, a decade after Olbrantz began visualizing the project, “Breath of Heaven, Breath of Earth” is opening at Willamette University’s Hallie Ford Museum of Art. Consisting of 64 objects representing some of the world’s oldest civilizations, the exhibition coincides with the museum’s 15th anniversary.
“It has been challenging, frustrating and immensely rewarding,” Olbrantz says about assembling the show. “These objects date back to the beginning of recorded history. You’d have to travel thousands of miles to see an exhibition of this caliber.”
A decade in the making
When Olbrantz was hired to direct the Hallie Ford Museum of Art in 1998, he couldn’t let himself dream too big. There was no money to launch a grand exhibition, let alone hire the staff he needed.
But that didn’t stop him from pursuing what he felt the museum could and should be. Located on the corner of State and Cottage streets, the facility is housed in a former telephone company building that was bought and remodeled with $3.5 million in grants — $2 million of which was gifted by the Ford Family Foundation.
Due to his connections throughout the United States and a $1 million endowment fund established by Hallie Ford in 2004, Olbrantz and Willamette faculty curators launched several notable exhibitions over the years that featured everything from classical and Egyptian art to Maori weaving and Renaissance drawings.
The newest exhibition, “Breath of Heaven, Breath of Earth,” has personal significance for Olbrantz. It’s dedicated to his best friend, Jim Romano, an art curator who died in a car crash in 2003.
The two organized an Egyptian exhibition at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art in 2002 but never had the opportunity to showcase their planned second exhibition of ancient Near Eastern art.
A decade later, with the help of Trudy Kawami, director of research at the Arthur M. Sackler Foundation, Olbrantz is finally ready to unveil “Breath of Heaven, Breath of Earth.”
In addition to the exhibition, the museum is hosting nearly 40 related events through Dec. 22 — including a lecture series, a film series, a family activity day and ancient Mesopotamian readings.
“I want people to be able to walk away with a better understanding of this art and these cultures,” Olbrantz says, “and to see how important these cultures were in the march of Western civilization.”
The exhibition was assembled through loans from more than 20 notable institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum. All artifacts originated from the Fertile Crescent region of the Middle East and date from 6000 BCE to 500 BCE.
“The quality of these objects is extremely high,” Olbrantz says. “These cultures gave Western civilization the concepts of cities, schools, writing and the alphabet. We owe a tremendous debt to the civilizations of the Near East.”
The exhibition ties together the divine, human and animal realms — uniting the region’s diverse cultures.
“Every culture has their own gods and goddesses, kings and queens, warriors and hunters,” Olbrantz says. “Every culture has animals, whether they’re supernatural, mythical or real.”
But finding pieces that represented each culture proved to be an almost impossible challenge, Olbrantz says. That’s why he and Kawami spent six years meeting and talking with curators on the East Coast to identify what objects were needed for the exhibition and to research where such objects were located.
The result is a wide range of pieces, from the head of Gudea, one of the earliest examples of royal portraiture, to a relief from Nineveh depicting a battle scene.
There’s a 10-inch-tall figure of a Sumerian priest worshipper and a glazed ceramic lion from ancient Nuzi in Mesopotamia, on loan from the University of Pennsylvania.
“Most of the objects in our exhibition are fairly small in scale, but extremely high in quality. Great art comes in small packages,” Olbrantz says.
Looking ahead, Olbrantz has many dreams for the museum’s continued evolution.
He wants to build the endowment fund to continue collecting art for the permanent exhibition. With the help of Andrea Foust, the museum’s membership and public relations manager, he hopes to engage more people as members and volunteers. He also plans to build his base of corporate and business memberships.
“The collection has grown significantly, and we want to continue to have it grow strategically,” he says. “For me, the museum’s growth has been a labor of love. I’m passionate about it. It’s been a great journey.”
As the museum celebrates its 15th anniversary, Roger Hull, emeritus art history professor and senior faculty curator, says he’s proud of the role the facility serves both at Willamette and for the greater community.
“It is known for its beautiful galleries and elegant exhibition designs. It is known for its publications and special programming,” Hull says. “It is considered to be an Oregon gem.”
Visit the exhibition
“Breath of Heaven, Breath of Earth” is on display Aug. 31–Dec. 22 at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art, 700 State St. Hours are Tuesdays–Saturdays, 10 a.m.–5 p.m., and Sundays, 1–5 p.m.