Fort Lee resident Kim Benzel brings lifelong Middle East fascination to the Met

The constant upheaval in the Mideast hasn’t made Kim Benzel’s work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art easy. But the associate curator for the museum’s Ancient Near Eastern Art Department says it has made it more important.

“The Ancient Near East is really the first entry in the encyclopedia,” said Benzel, who splits her time between Fort Lee and Vermont. “These are highly cultured, highly civilized societies.”

Currently preparing for a major 2014 exhibition, Benzel’s department, which oversees the museum’s collection of more than 7,000 works, has been forced to borrow additional Ancient Near East artifacts from its European counterparts because artifacts are nearly impossible to acquire from the Middle East and excavations are on hold.

But that certainly hasn’t stopped Benzel and her colleagues from striving to show how vital the Ancient Near East, today known as the Middle East, is – and not just for oil, she emphasized.
The Details

Ancient Near Eastern Art associate curator Kim Benzel talks about a Neo-Assyrian relief panel during “Hyperreality,” part of the Met’s “82nd & Fifth” video series. Made of gypsum alabaster, the panel was a gift from John D. Rockefeller Jr. in 1932 and depicts Assyrian king and chief priest Ashurnasirpal II during a ritual libation.

“The more people learn, the more people understand, the less misunderstanding [there is] in the world … about any topic,” she said. “It’s our mutual past; the ancient world made all of us what we are today.”

Indeed, the area spawned early trade, diplomacy, science, astronomy, math, pottery, the wheel and writing, Benzel noted.

“Think of inventing writing,” she added. “The next big guy was Steve Jobs.”

Benzel, who grew up in Englewood, always has been fascinated with the Middle East “for whatever reason.” An undergraduate political science major at Brown University, she took a few anthropology and archaeology courses. Then she happened upon an exhibition on Greek gold.

“I took one look at that stuff and went berserk,” she said. A few years at a New York goldsmithing school taught her ancient techniques that she intended to use to create a commercial jewelry line, but “people would bring me pictures in magazines of really ugly things that I had no interest in making,” she said.

So Benzel went back to school, and while studying art and archaeology, she did a fellowship at the Met that lead to an entry-level curator job – without having finished her coursework. She finally completed her Ph.D. last year. “It’s like having two jobs,” she said.
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