The museum has been closed since April 1996, when the staff started to pack the museum’s artifacts and move them into galleries at the building’s north end, safe from the clatter and debris of construction, which began on August 15, 1996.
"We're so thrilled, seriously thrilled," says Laura D'Alessandro, head of the museum’s conservation laboratory. "We are so pleased to have more space that’s safer for the objects, to be able to work more efficiently, to be able to work on more objects at one time."
The new wing’s basement and first floor will store archival materials, and specially designed rooms will protect organic objects and metals. The library stacks and conservation laboratory also will move to the south wing, as will the exhibit-preparation shop.
Most importantly, new equipment to stabilize the temperature and humidity in the museum and to filter particles and gases from its air will be installed in the addition's third floor. The equipment will help protect artifacts throughout the museum from weather damage. Contaminants in the air, as well as Chicago’s fluctuating humidity-which ranges from 0 percent in the winter to 100 percent in the summer-have caused paint to flake and crystals of salt to form on some objects.
Indeed, the need to prevent further damage prompted the Oriental Institute’s $10.1-million overhaul, which includes not only construction of the new wing, but also museumwide renovations, the first since the original building’s completion in 1931. Besides improving the building’s infrastructure, the project calls for a reconfiguration of the old space. Archaeological study areas that had been used for storage will be restored to their original purpose, and an education center will be created for seminars, docent events, and public gatherings.
Right now, the task at hand is to move the collection-more than 100,000 registered artifacts-into renovated portions of the basement and the new wing, a process that will take four to six weeks. Then, the museum’s staff can begin to prepare the Egyptian gallery, which will reopen in December 1998 or January 1999 where the Mesopotamian gallery used to be.
Every six months thereafter, one of the four remaining galleries-Assyrian, Mesopotamian, Persian, and Special Exhibits-will reopen, with the entire museum scheduled to be open to the public by May 2001. Promises the museum’s director, Karen Wilson: "If we can do it faster, we’ll do it faster."