Pines School of Graduate Studies Students Help Create Cincinnati Art Museum’s Ancient Near East Exhibition

On December 18, the Cincinnati Art Museum opened the re-installation of its ancient Middle Eastern collections featuring Nabatean objects excavated by Dr. Nelson Glueck, respected field archaeologist and former President of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (1947-1971). Dr. Nili Fox, former Director of the Pines School of Graduate Studies and Professor Emerita of Bible, as well as almost a dozen Pines School of Graduate Studies students were involved in this project at any given point.

Ph.D. student Chelsea Simon at Avdat National Park, site of a ruined Nabataean city in the Negev desert in southern Israel

Ph.D. student Chelsea Simon, who is currently writing a dissertation about Jewish messianism during the Second Commonwealth Period, began working with the museum in the spring of 2016 when HUC-JIR was invited to participate in the research for and creation of the exhibit. Chelsea recalls, “The first thing we did was split up into sub-teams. HUC students were involved in two sub-teams: ‘Nelson Glueck’ and ‘Holy Lands.’ Every sub-team received a list of the items in the collection, many including images, from which they chose the most representative artifacts. This process included several trips to the Cincinnati Art Museum’s storage with the curators, and conversations and research about archaeology and artifacts. We worked on that all summer and into the next year.”

Throughout the last five years, Chelsea researched Dr. Glueck at the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives on HUC’s Cincinnati campus, among using many other resources, and contributed her results as part of the exhibit preparation. She also designed and executed an original oral history effort to produce original research. Dr. Glueck’s significant work was his method of topographical archaeological survey and his expertise in pottery reading and identification. At the time of his excavations, the policy in archaeological digs was that all artifacts found in a given country were divided between the country in which they were discovered and the country of the excavator. He brought many materials from Jordan to Cincinnati; they were donated by his family to the Museum.

Julia Olsen and colleague Sarah Wenner examining a piece on display in the gallery at the opening gala on the 15th

Beginning in 2018, fifth-year Hebrew Bible and Cognate Studies Ph.D. student Julia Olson began working on the exhibit. In 2019, she was chosen to serve as one of two Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Curatorial Research Fellows, through the Museum, working on researching, describing, and labeling the objects on display. She has an article in the exhibit catalog that accompanies the installation. The other fellow is Sarah Wenner, who is completing her Ph.D. at the University of Cincinnati.

Julia shares, “We helped narrow down the object list for items that would be displayed in the gallery, and we worked together under the leadership of the curator, Dr. Ainsley Cameron, to see how the objects fit into different thematic sections of the gallery. After that, we researched each object in depth, figuring out how it fit (or sometimes didn’t) into the themes that we were seeing appear in the gallery, based on the chosen objects and the narrative elements they were offering us as we examined them. After that, we wrote content for each object. Our team of four wrote each label seen in the gallery, as well as all the digital content available to visitors on the digital interactives in the gallery.”

“I feel this project has been a formative experience for my career, my view of the world, and my approach to teaching,” Julia continues. “Working in the gallery pushed me to adapt my education and approach to serving people who were less familiar, or not at all familiar, with the time periods and regions of the world that are featured in the gallery. Many of the approaches I learned during this process found their way into my teaching at the University of Dayton as the Ruslander-Friedland Teaching Fellow, and the lessons I learned about new ways to present information will stay with me forever. Not only that, but the way I view history, the use and reuse of iconography and art in the ancient world, and the formation and sustaining of ancient empires, has been deeply impacted by this.”

Dr. Nili Fox, former Director of the Pines School of Graduate Studies and Professor Emerita of Bible, and students at the Archaeology Center on the HUC-JIR/Cincinnati campus.

Dr. Nili Fox was involved from 2016 to 2019 before her retirement in June 2020. “I wrote applications for grants on behalf of the museum but my main contribution was involving HUC students. The students involved designed how they wanted these artifacts exhibited, handled the artifacts themselves, looked for misplaced pieces based on dating, and differentiated between authentic pieces and pieces from the antiquities market.” Dr. Fox worked alongside students, instructors from the University of Cincinnati, and the previous museum curator, Amy Dehan, before Dr. Cameron came on board.

Chelsea, who worked with both curators, shares more about her interests and involvement in the project. “I have always been interested in the breaks between Judaism and Christianity. I have a wide range of interests in Jewish history, particularly the Second Temple period and medieval history, and I am more drawn to the fields of Jewish history and thought rather than philology or textual criticism. I really appreciated the opportunity to research the Nabateans and be able to do archival research and dive into something that I didn’t study formally during my Ph.D. coursework at HUC.”

Chelsea continues, “Oral history is valuable because of the relationships you cultivate during the process. I felt like I came to know Nelson Glueck and Judith McKenzie, two people I will never meet personally, through oral history research, interviews, and article writing. Even better, I established relationships with everyone I interviewed. The original research I completed for this project is a tangible contribution, providing new stories and a different lens on Nelson and Judith as archaeologists and people. Visual art of the Nabateans surrounds their temples. There was a great deal of cultural interaction between the Nabateans and Romans, so the visual portrayal of their deities is very similar. I find the decorations that they used at these holy and royal sites very interesting; they demonstrate how connected these two cultures were. It is hard for us 2,000 years later, even though we understand how global our society is, to imagine the connections among ancient cultures without the technology that consumes our daily lives. What we see in visual art from these cultures shows us that they were in each other’s space, especially through trade and travel.”

Ryan Replogle

Ryan Replogle

Chelsea was active in brainstorming sessions between late 2017 and 2019 with Hebrew Bible and Ancient Near East Ph.D. student Ryan Replogle. Ryan shares that he “became involved in the project through Dr. Nili Fox who taught the archaeology courses and was instrumental in establishing the Archaeology Center in the Hermann Learning Center on the Cincinnati campus. I mainly worked with Julia and the other Mellon fellow to research objects and to select those of greatest interest and relevance to the gallery as a whole, and sometimes to write first drafts of display labels and other informational bits for an interactive display that appears in the gallery.”

Ryan continues, “Though I participated in a limited capacity, the project has been quite fulfilling for me since it was the first opportunity I had to put my many years’ worth of graduate education to use. Doctoral students labor for years to develop expertise in an area in order to further knowledge, both by teaching others and by innovative thinking. This project provided the opportunity for both, but especially the former. Most of my involvement with the museum project came in my fourth year of the doctoral program, and by then I was itching to do something with everything I had learned. It was refreshing to be able to grapple with how to distill scholarly knowledge and effectively communicate it to the public viewer. I would encourage museum-goers to inquire about the stories of the individuals and communities who produced and are reflected in the objects. These people are among the oldest for whom we have historical records.”

Richard Sarason

Rabbi Richard Sarason

Rabbi Richard Sarason, Ph.D., Director of the Pines School of Graduate Studies, said, “This project has been particularly meaningful to me in that it gave a number of our students valuable hands-on experience working with artifacts from their field in a prestigious art museum, indicating one way in which they could put their study here and professional expertise to use. I had seen some of these items previously in earlier display iterations at the museum, but never together in this particular configuration with its explanatory signage. It was a pleasure and a privilege to attend the exhibit opening and to greet our student Julia Olson there. I was extremely proud of the role that our students played in the assembling, labeling, and curating of this exhibit, in which the work of Nelson Glueck is so prominently displayed.”

Julia shares a final reflection about her experience. “I was asked to look at the world in a different way than I had thus far in my career, to find a connection over space and time that highlights this intensely human desire to create art. The lessons I learned while doing this connective research and interpretation will influence the rest of my career and for that I am immensely thankful. I hope that my friends and colleagues at HUC will have a chance to see the gallery. I am so lucky to be a part of the HUC community which has so deeply fostered my educational growth. What I have learned at HUC made the work I did at the museum possible!”

To learn more about Dr. Nelson Glueck, read the Tablet’s “The Bible Detective.”
To obtain a copy of the catalog, contact the Cincinnati Art Museum.