The University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute changes its name

April 24, 2023 • 10:10 am

104 years after its founding, the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago is no longer going to be called that; it’s changed its name to the Institute for the Study of Ancient Cultures, West Africa & North Africa (ISAC).  Founded in 1919 with the approval (and funding) of John D. Rockefeller, it has a venerable history of research, and its museum, which I pass every day on my way home, is well worth visiting if you come here. (It’s “donate what you want” to get in.) Here are a few photos I took in 2018, especially of ducks and cats.

This is my favorite: it’s a “Human-Headed Winged Bull (lamassu), Palace of the Assyrian king Sargon II (721–705 BCE), Dur-Sharrukin (modern Khorsabad), excavated by ISAC’s Iraq Expedition (A7369). One of approximately 350,000 objects available in the collections search.” It’s HUGE, going from floor to ceiling (this photo is not mine but from the ISAC site). Imagine moving this from Iraq to Chicago (I hope the acquisition was kosher):

It’s a great place, no matter what it’s called, but, as Wikipedia notes, beginning with Edward Said the noun and adjective “Oriental” began to be seen as pejorative: reducing Asians to some exotic, mysterious aspect of their character—in other words, stereotyping them. As Wikipedia notes,

In the 2010s, multiple organizations within the U.S. began reconsidering the use of the word “Oriental,” as some scholars felt the word was alienating and that it had changed in popular meaning. In March 2023, University of Chicago administrators announced they would be changing the name of the Oriental Institute. Interim director Theo van den Hout said, “Our current name has caused confusion, often contributing to the perception that our work is focused on East Asia, rather than West Asia and North Africa. Additionally, the word “oriental” has developed a pejorative connotation in modern English.” In April 2023, the organization’s name changed to the Institute for the Study of Ancient Cultures, West Asia & North Africa, abbreviated as ISAC. The institute’s new logo features a lotus flower, which is found in ancient Assyrian, Mesopotamian, and Egyptian art, as well as being a decorative motif on the ISAC building.

Well, I guess the confusion lasted over a hundred years, but we all know that the name was changed because “Oriental” began to be seen as either racist or “othering”.  In reality, I think, the Institute was named simply because “Oriental” meant “east of the Mediterranean”, which pretty much reflected the work going on there. It surely did NOT refer to people, but to an area.  So I’m a bit sad to see that concise and venerable name changed to something that’s a big mouthful. On the other hand, I can’t get too worked up about it because the connotation of words changes. I’ll just refer you to three articles on the Museum, and recommend that you come see it if you’re on campus. It’s well worth it, and right across the street from the main Quad.

From the University of Chicago News site:

From the Hyde Park Herald (local paper):


The Chicago Maroon (student paper):

Here’s the new lotus-flower symbol that the institution has adopted, and they’re busy now effacing “Oriental institute” from the building and its signs.

32 thoughts on “The University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute changes its name

  1. This is the first time I’ve heard of the Oriental Institute but I also assumed its studies surround East Asian cultures rather than North African and West Asian. Although it’s also quite funny that the name can be construed to mean North Africa and West Asia had no ancient cultures. (Unsure how popular the Oxford comma is in Chicago.)

    1. Near and Far East, as well as Asian, are no less Western and Euro-centric. How long before Asian is not the preferred nomenclature?

      1. Times change, mores change, language changes. There are plenty of terms for people that were in common parlance a century, or even a half century ago, but are no longer considered appropriate today.

        Those who wish to stand athwart this history yelling “Stop!” are akin to King Canute commanding the tides.

  2. I thought the name implied the study of Asian culture, as well. I never thought it was considered pejorative –I thought of it as just somewhat antiquated and confusing. I’m glad they clarified.

  3. In high school I took a course on Non-Western Cultures and we visited the Oriental Institute. At 16 I thought it a foolish name because I’d always assumed it had to do with China. This particular use of “oriental” is technical, yes, but archaic enough to be easily misunderstood.

    The new name seems like a bit of a mouthful, though. I guess they couldn’t make it both snappy & informative, so opted for the latter.

  4. The School of Oriental and African Studies, part of the University of London, has had the word “African” as part of its name since 1938, according to Wikipedia It was originally The School of Oriental Studies.. I would be surprised if they dropped the use of “Oriental”. But its long and distinguished history might well be regarded as a relic of colonialism.

    1. The new website for SOAS barely mentions ‘Oriental’. Pondering the prominence of the globe in the new SOAS website, maybe U London is positioning itself for a change of name to, oh, SAGSS ( School of African /Global South Studies )? I used to not infrequently attend lectures at SOAS as a postgrad , 1990-1991, when Oriental wasn’t in the last controversial.

      Is there different nuance for ‘Oriental’ va ‘Asian’ or ‘Asiatic’ in the US context versus UK? When I’ve been to the UK, ‘Asian’ seems largely used colloquially as shorthand for ‘South Asian ethnicities’, as opposed to East Asian, while academically Oriental and Asian were largely interchangeable. Apart from SOAS, the British Museum’s Asian wing is named ‘Department of Oriental Antiquities’, which informally excludes Islamic art unless it was made in East Asia itself. The Americans seem to have invented the ungainly AAPI acronym of ‘Asian American Pacific Islander’.

      Ramesh 49% Indian-Asian, 49% Oriental, 2% Denisovan-Asiatic

  5. The long shadow of Edward Said continues its baleful influence. I wonder how long SOAS will hold out?

    1. I think you’ll find a much more nuanced view of Said in <a href=" piece by Christopher Hitchens in The Atlantic.

      As I recall, Hitch-22 contains a chapter dedicated to Said. The memoir also recounts the incident when Martin Amis brought Hitchens as his guest to a lunch at the house of Saul Bellow (one of Hitch’s literary heroes — one of mine, too, for that matter). Although Hitchens and Said had had a falling out by that time, Hitchens got into a dust-up with Bellow (who’d become something of a reactionary in his dotage) when Bellow attacked Said on what Hitchens felt were unfair grounds.

      1. Anyone who believes that Said has been unjustly maligned ought to read Robert Irwin’s splendid For Lust of Knowing/Dangerous Knowledge, published nearly two decades ago. Irwin (a far superior scholar and far more widely read in the sources of Islamic/MiddleEastern history) completely demolishes Said’s fashionable pseudo-scholarship.

        1. There’s also Ibn Warraq’s Defending the West: A Critique of Edward Said’s Orientalism. Very readable.

  6. Fabulous museum. Love the lamassu. The great wall reliefs flanking it are also spectacular. I believe I read that the government of Iraq sold the lamassu to them, which was in many pieces when it was shipped over.

  7. The Institute also has a superb YouTube channel where they share their fascinating work with the world through public lectures. If you’re interested in the ancient history of the Near- and Middle East, and want to hear about it from experts, I recommend it.

  8. [ this comment was censored by critical-theoretical intersectionality ]
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  9. Why not just Africa, instead of specifying West and North?? What about East and Central? I guess South is in a class all its own.

  10. That’s a typo, Marilee. It’s West Asian and North African. In this contest, “North Africa” means Egypt. So “the Middle East” to us Philistines, nothing to do with Africa at all….or with the Far East, as oriental came to mean in popular use.

  11. It’s not clear why the concept “Africa” is more kosher than is “Oriental”. People living in Africa never had a term for the Continent. The idea of Africa we have goes back to the period of European exploration and exploitation. See the discussion of this extremely interesting case in Jocelyn Benoist’s book “Concepts”.

  12. I struggle to understand what is so pernicious about the word oriental. Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I tend to look at these things in terms of the intent behind a word. Yet I can’t ever recall an utterance of the word ‘oriental’ that I thought was in any way intended to cause offence. Yes, language changes. Usually that happens organically, but sometimes it happens because we’re told it should. This seems very much like the latter to me.

    However, with regard to the exhibits, all I can say is WOW! The Assyrian relief carving followed by the iron bull and the huge carving are amazing! I never knew this museum existed, but these artefacts are reminiscent of the Assyrian exhibits in the British Museum, and just as spectacular. As you say, those things are huge.

    I might be in Chicago at some point this summer, and if I am I’ll make absolutely sure I go there. I’m very impressed.

  13. The roots of the word “Asia” are … Greek, specifically, the word “Ἀσία,” meaning more or less, “from the east.” How that’s better than the Latin-rooted word “Orient” — which means ***the exact same thing** — is beyond me (acknowleding, of course, that the new name doesn’t use the word “Asia”).

    Seems to me that all the sensitivity about various once-approved words and labels is just hand-wringing or, worse, an excuse not to do anything substantive.

    1. It actually does use the word Asia. It’s right there in the name.

      I accept the first of their reasons for eliminating Oriental. I would go to an “oriental” museum expecting to see artifacts and works of art from China, Japan, and Korea, just from the way the word has come to be used. I didn’t know till today that “oriental” meant Egypt and Mesopotamia. Duh! East, right?

      Of course, West Asia really means Europe, doesn’t it. given it’s really all one continent. The British would like that: Asia really does begin at Calais.

      1. Words vary in meaning depending on where and when they are used. In some languages, “oriental” or its equivalent is used for places like Morocco, which are west of most of Europe. Why? Because the culture has been influenced by others further east.

        “Orient” originally meant “rise”, then the direction in which the Sun rises, then to look in that direction, then to get one’s bearings in general. Some of the old meanings persist(ed) even after a new meaning was created.

  14. While my feelings about the area are probably tinged with the nostalgia of annual childhood trips to the Museum of Science and Industry, the Shedd Aquarium, and The Field Museum, I recommend the Oriental Institute to nearly everyone I know who plans to spend some time in Chicago, especially if they already intend to visit the Art Institute.

    My wife and I have ventured into the city several times simply to visit it, grab some coffee, and take a stroll through the beautiful campus and surrounding neighborhoods. Of course, the traffic traveling back home could dull the experience!

  15. I studied upstairs from the museum in the Dept. of NE Languages & Civilizations from 1980-87, receiving my Ph.D. in Northwest Semitic Philology. Excellent program and fantastic teachers.

  16. I suppose one is no longer allowed to “orient” oneself to new surroundings. I suppose “freshmen orientation” is verboten. Or orienting when one goes out into the wilderness, purposefully gets losts, and attempts to determine where one is, using a compass and whatever means is at one’s disposal. (I wonder if “Orion” is related to “Orient”?)

    As a matter of principle and consistency, why shouldn’t we in the West no less get bent out of shape if someone uses the word “Occident” or “Occidental”? (Is the word somehow related to “occult”?)

  17. It’s a fine museum, well worth a visit– I’ve gone a few time while visiting Jerry at the U of Chi. In an archaeological context, “Oriental” has a well-established meaning, and I would never mistake it for a museum that had objects from East Asia (China, Korea, Japan). The name change is unfortunate. “West Asia” seems especially poorly chosen, since half of West Asia is in Russia, and the museum does not include this area in its remit.


    1. Then the Museum should have stuck to its guns and kept the name. It would have been a useful education of the visitors as to the correct meaning. What good is having your own professional lexicon if you surrender to white pecksniffs who think oriental is demeaning?

      FWIW, the Royal Ontario Museum has large collections of Chinese art and architecture and separate galleries of Mesopotamian and Egyptian artifacts, as well as holdings from other regions. They don’t call any of them oriental. (When my son and nephew were little we went frequently to see the dinosaur skeletons. Perusing the website just now I realize it’s time for an adult visit.)

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