Culture on the frontline: Penn Museum shows curators are fighting to save in Syrian and Iraq

Many US museums have been closely monitoring the on-going destruction of heritage sites in Syria and Iraq. But few have had boots on the ground like the Penn Museum. The Philadelphia institution’s curators and researchers have been on the frontlines of the battle to safeguard cultural heritage in conflict zones. Now, they have organised an exhibition that seeks to illustrate just how high the stakes are.

Cultures in the Crossfire: Stories From Syria and Iraq (8 April-26 November) presents more than 50 artefacts from the museum’s collection, including a funerary relief from Palmyra (1st-2nd century CE), a 16th-century glazed terracotta tile from Damascus and Arabic illustrated manuscripts on complex mathematics, music theory and astronomy. Many of the objects were originally excavated from areas that have been torn apart by the Syrian civil war. 

“This is where writing was invented—and in medieval times, it is home to the first education centres,” says the Syrian archaeologist Salam Al Kuntar, who co-organised the show. “We want to give a brighter image of these places and remind people that this episode of destruction is brief in the course of history.” 

  • Palmyrene Relief, Mortuary Portrait of Yedi’at, limestone, 1st-2nd centuries CE (Roman), Palmyra, Syria. Lavishly dressed and heavily draped, a woman lifts the edge of her veil as a gesture of piety. A Palmyrene inscription identifies her: “Yedi ‘at, daughter of Si’ona, son of Taime, Alas!” Dating to the 1st and 2nd centuries CE, funerary portraits  like this one of wealthy patrons demonstrate the complexity and richness of Palmyrene identity. These busts combine Roman sculptural elements and local stylistic elements. Some of these portraits were accompanied by inscriptions in the Palmyrene dialect of Aramaic

  • Cylinder seal, lapis lazuli, around 2500 BCE, Ur, Iraq. Organised into two sections, the surface of this deep-blue cylinder seal from Ur, Iraq includes goats on the upper register and antelopes on the lower register. Made of lapis lazuli, which was only found in Badakhshan, Afghanistan, the seal is an example of the far-flung connections of Mesopotamian states and society that were forged through trade and organised administration

  • Baby’s Chicken Rattle, terracotta, Nippur, Iraq. Molded by hand, this ancient terracotta baby rattle was excavated in Nippur, Iraq. The rattle takes on the shape of a bird, possibly a dove or chicken. The eyes are two pellets, and the interior is hollow with a loose piece

  • This spread shows two pages from a zoological manuscript, created in 1710 CE in Aleppo, Syria and written in the Arabic naskh script. The manuscript features descriptions and illustrations of domestic and wild animals, birds, insects, marine animals, plants, stemless plants, and herbs. Sources include Dioscorides, Galen, and Ibn al-Baytar. The larger, encyclopedic work of which the text of this manuscript is a part, whose title in English is “Voyages of the Eyes in the Kingdoms of the Main Cities,” also includes cosmography, geography, history, and biography

  • Issam Kourbaj! Lost (2016), repurposed clothes dipped in plaster with text in Arabic and Greek. Lost deals with the issue of Syrian refugees in Lesbos, Greece.  These pieces are made from children’s clothing. Each is cut to form one, maximum flat surface—in a way, bringing it back to its origin—and finally dipped in plaster. This clothing holds the ghost of its past, and acts as evidence of and a gravestone for its recent past carrier (the person who never managed to make it, drowned and lost in dark water). This piece reads: UNKNOWN BOY, 17 MONTHS OLD, CHECKED SHIRT, No: 487, 25-11-2015 [date of burial]

  • Issam Kourbaj, Homeland: An Excavation (2016), reproduction of a passport, rubber stamps, inkpads, and Excavating the Present catalogue jacket, stamp holder, desk. This work shows a cancelled copy of the artist’s Syrian passport alongside stamps and a poem that was written in response. Inspired by the cylinder seals and stamp seals in this exhibition and based on a prior work titled Excavating the Present, the piece asks us to consider what homeland means when one can no longer travel there—to ‘the country formerly known as Syria’ as referred to in the February 2013 edition of The Economist

  • Syrian volunteers cover mosaics in the Ma’arra Museum with a protective layer of glue, and then cloth designed to fortify and keep the tesserae together before sandbags were laid out (Photo courtesy Penn Cultural Heritage Center)

  • The Penn Cultural Heritage Center’s Hekayya Initiative, Ancient Villages of Northern  Syria, looked at heritage through the eyes of refugee children (Photo 2016 courtesy Penn Cultural Heritage Center)

The Penn Museum is home to on of the largest collections of artefacts from Iraq and Syria in the US. The show includes a Hebrew tombstone, an eye idol, and pages from the Qur’an to illustrate the religious diversity of the region, while glass pitchers, gold ornaments and ivories highlight its history as a trade hub. 

In an effort to connect the past to the present, curators have installed newly commissioned works by the Syrian-born artist Issam Kourbaj throughout the show, including an installation inspired by 5th-century Syrian boats. Documentation of the Penn Cultural Heritage Center’s recent preservation efforts is also on view. The centre has proactively documented collections in northern Iraq and helped fortify 1,600 sq. ft of Roman and Byzantine mosaics at a museum south of Aleppo. 

Al Kuntar, who is originally from Syria, notes that US museums do not always effectively communicate the complex histories of ancient objects in their collections. She hopes that the more that visitors learn about where these objects came from—and how they ended up in the US—the more invested they will feel in the fight for preservation. 

“I don’t feel that Western museums can continue to exhibit artefacts that were taken in some kind of unethical way and to continue showing these objects with no connection to their place of origin,” Al Kuntar says. “The Penn Museum is lucky in a way because a lot of our collections come from proper excavations. But it’s important [to acknowledge the context from which these objects came]. What can an ancient artefact tell you if it doesn’t tell you  who made it, where it was made, and what it was made for?”

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