Mysterious Artifact Discussed at Object Talk

Aviva Blonder, Staff Writer

A small crowd gathered around one of the many glass cases that line the walls of the Allen Memorial Art Museum this past Sunday for the Museum’s first “Object Talk” of the semester.

On this particular afternoon, everyone’s attention was focused on “Lipit-Ishtar,” a small clay cone covered in cuneiform that dates back to 1939–1928 B.C.E. According to College senior Rachel Webberman, a student docent, the cone was donated to the museum by the Oberlin College Classics department in 1942. Because the piece was likely looted from one of several sites by the Tigris River in what is now Iraq, the exact origins of the object are unknown. An assyriologist at the University of Chicago matched it with seven other pieces, which are located in several different collections around the world. The inscription on the cone references “a house of righteousness,” or a law code, that predates Hammurabi’s famous code by 200 years.

Webberman, a Religion and Classics major with a particular interest in ancient religions and the Hebrew Bible, spent last Winter Term in a program at Oberlin where she “learned a lot about how to help people think through art and what questions to ask.” Jason Trimmer, curator of education, has been teaching the program since eight years ago when he began working at the Allen. The program’s final project entails writing a sizable research paper about an item in the collection of the student’s choice and giving a brief talk about that particular object. Webberman chose the cuneiform cone because of her interest in the ancient world, particularly the ancient Middle East. “I think that it’s one of the only things that you can look at and seriously have no idea what it is,” said Webberman.

The Winter Term intensive, which first began in 1990, is, according to Trimmer, “a great opportunity to spend intensive time in the galleries.” Students spend four hours a day in the museum learning about educational philosophies in light of the collection, so that they get a better understanding of the range of objects on view. They also go on field trips and learn about possible career paths. The mission of the program, according to Trimmer, is for “[the students] to get comfortable as instructors and to stimulate interest among visitors.” Trimmer said that bonding as a group was very important. Webberman agreed that having an enthusiastic group of students involved in the program was one of the highlights of the experience.

According to Trimmer, many students in the program ultimately apply for assistant positions at the Allen or find internships and entry-level jobs at other museums, and many have gone on to graduate school in museum studies. He recommended participating as “the best way to get involved with the museum,” since the application process for the Winter Term program is less selective than the application process for most jobs. Finally, Trimmer said he would urge all students at Oberlin, regardless of their interest level in museum studies, to visit the museum at least once during their time here.