Two new, timely exhibits are currently on display at the Penn Museum. Cultures in the Crossfire: Stories from Syria and Iraq asks what is at stake and why does it matter if cultural heritage is destroyed in war.
Objects Speak: Media Through Time is a student curated exhibit that highlights how objects and media have been used through the ages to deliver messages about power, influence, and status.
The cities of the Middle East have long been a cultural crossroads where for millennia Arabs, Kurds, Arameans, Armenians, Sunnis, Shias, Christians, Jews, and many other groups have lived beside ancient ruins. Tragically, sectarian divisions have become inflamed by war. The material culture of the region’s inhabitants is being destroyed both indirectly as collateral damage in an ongoing war, and directly as a political statement.
This special exhibition explores the rich cultural heritage, human diversity, and achievements_ as well as the movements and displacements of people and objects caught in the crossfire – through more than 50 objects from the museum’s Near East and Mediterranean collections, as well as manuscripts from the University of Pennsylvania Libraries, and contemporary art installations.
“I want people to see the richness of culture and diversity of the people,” said Dr. Salam Al Kuntar, Syrian–born archaeologist and lead curator of the exhibit. “So people can see the many layers of history and also the many layers of identities of people. To think about the cradle of civilization and the world they live in. To show them the writing. The Abrahamic religions started there. The whole Hellenistic world where east meets west. And at the same time, understand the destruction of heritage in context. I want people to look at our efforts and what we have done here so it is not really all gloomy and sad. There is hope and we can do something.”
Contemporary perspective is provided in the form of art installations created by Syrian-born artist Issam Kourbaj. Strike i, ii, iii, is a series of video installations featuring a performance of burning matchsticks.
“We want to be more inclusive so our heritage work is not only antiquities and museums,” said Al Kuntar, ” [Kourbaj] came to a meeting in Washington DC and gave a presentation. Richard Leventhal, the director of the Penn Cultural Heritage Center was there. He thought Kourbaj’s art would fit in well with our exhibits because he was kind of talking about this whole thing of crisis and the refugee crisis in particular. The idea of a homeland and the destruction of the past, and the search for identity.
The museum has never done something like this but when they saw the work, yeah. He looked at our themes and selections and he created his work.”
The Museum’s Penn Cultural Center has worked closely over the years with Syrians and Iraqis to identify, monitor, and aid in the preservation of cultural heritage that is important to local communities. The cultural center has worked to preserve mosaics at a museum in Ma’arra, Syria and has recorded looting and worked to stabilize historic structures across the region.
“The initial idea of Objects Speak was that it was going to be a propaganda show, ” said Caroline Miller, one of the student Curators of Objects Speak: Media Through Time, “but we decided that that was a very loaded term. We didn’t want to spend time unpacking the negative notions. Materialized ideology was sort of our jumping off point for this whole show. The exhibit itself is divided up by the forms of media. There is monumental media, mass produced media such as coins and posters, and personal individual items that people would wear or use in ceremonial situations.”
“We’re focusing less on historical context or geographical context and more on the actual form of the object,” said Reggie Krammer, another of the student curators.
“Media is such a buzzword right now,” said Miller, “and when we think of media we think of social media, we think of newsprint, and television, but throughout history that has meant so much more. ”
Some items of particular note that are on display are bust of a Ptolemaic ruler presented as an Egyptian pharaoh. Grid lines etched on the back suggest that the bust may have been massed produced and widely distributed. There is also an elaborately decorated ceremonial sword used in Persian passion plays.
The general theme of conservation and preservation is carried over into the newly reopened Artifact Lab. Since October 2012 the museum invited visitors to get a behind-the-scenes glimpse of conservators in action with, In the Artifact Lab: Conserving Egyptian Mummies. The lab shut down temporarily earlier this year. It has recently reopened and is still adjacent to the area housing Cultures in the Crossfire, but it has a broader focus and is now called The Artifact Lab: Conservation in Action.
University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology
3260 South Street
Tuesday through Sunday 10 a.m. -5 p.m.
$15 General Admission
$13 Senior Citizens
$10 Children 6-17
Free for members