visitors at Penn admire ancient displays - and display cases
April, Mohammed Abdul-Rezaq watched in anguish as looters ransacked the
Iraq National Museum in Baghdad, where he is an expert in archaeological
"We saw pieces in the hands of
ignorant people," recalled Abdul-Rezaq. "They were breaking
artifacts. I felt like the objects were screaming, but nobody was
But in fact many people were listening,
at such places as the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and
Anthropology, which has ties to Iraq that stretch back more than a
century. The museum yesterday played host to Abdul-Rezaq and 22 other
Iraqi museum professionals who are on a national tour to see how American
The Iraqis were not typical museumgoers:
When they fondly ran their fingers over display cases, they were admiring
the cabinetry as much as the objects in them. And while they were perhaps
more moved than most by the museum's 4,500-year-old Mesopotamian treasures
- since they recognized them as originating in their country - they were
also fascinated by things that might escape the attention of many, such as
the state-of-the-art, climate-controlled storage system in the museum's
new $17 million Mainwaring Wing.
"We are most impressed with the
construction of the museum, the display cabinets and the storage
systems," said Maryam Omran Mossa, director of the Babylon Museum.
"We hope this can be replicated in our country."
The visit was sponsored by the Cultural
Heritage Institute for Iraq, a program funded by the U.S. State
Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, as part of a
five-week tour to study U.S. preservation and conservation methods.
The group of mostly young professionals
- only two had ever been outside Iraq - is spending most of its time at
the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. In addition to Philadelphia,
the group is making stops at museums in New York and Santa Fe, N.M.
The Philadelphia visit coincides with
this weekend's opening of "Treasures From the Royal Tombs of
Ur," a traveling exhibition of objects from the ancient Mesopotamian
city of Ur, near modern-day Nasiriyah. The objects from the Penn museum
have been on a nationwide tour for more than five years.
The visit also allowed the museum staff
to reinforce connections to Iraq that began more than a century ago, when
the university sponsored the first of what would be more than 350
expeditions. In 1888, it sent a team to excavate the ancient Mesopotamian
city of Nippur, a dig that unearthed a trove of objects so rich it
prompted the university to open the museum.
Some of the museum's most spectacular
finds were recovered in the late 1920s from the Royal Cemetery of Ur,
south of the Euphrates near Nasiriyah. Those objects were collected into
"Treasures From the Royal Tombs of Ur."
"Iraq has been on a downhill slide
since the first Gulf War," said Richard L. Zettler, the associate
curator of the Near East section and curator for the "Royal
Tombs" exhibit. "There's not much we can accomplish in a two-day
visit like this except to show them a few aspects of storage, exhibition
and conservation. We hope to identify individuals to bring back for longer
The exchange program represents a
commitment by the U.S. government to protect and conserve Iraq's cultural
heritage, said Patricia de Stacy Harrison, assistant secretary of state
for educational and cultural affairs. "These exchanges have long-term
benefits, but they have an immediate impact, too," she said in a
While the Iraqi visitors were captivated
by the Ur exhibit - they crowded to have their photographs taken with some
of the astonishing gold-encrusted objects that demonstrated the advances
of Mesopotamian culture - they were almost as excited about the
nuts-and-bolts functions below the museum's public face.
In a tour of the museum's new Mainwaring
Wing, where organic objects are warehoused in a low-humidity 60-degree
digitally secure environment, the Iraqis peppered their hosts with
practical questions: What sort of backup power systems are in place at the
museum? What sort of security systems are in place? Do you keep Iraqi
human remains in the museum ("We do have human remains here at the
museum," said keeper Shannon White, "but no royalty as far as I
In a basement storage room, Zettler,
addressing the Iraqis in Arabic, displayed many objects excavated in Iraq
before the country passed a law in 1967 prohibiting removal of artifacts.
The visitors recognized the carved black
stone head of Gudea, a king of Lagash around 2200 B.C. The body of the
figurine is on display at the national museum in Baghdad. Zettler said
Penn obtained the head from a New York dealer, though it is unclear how it
became separated from the body.
"When I saw the head of the king, I
felt a bit of pain because the body is in Baghdad," said Abdul-Rezaq.
"I think the body is calling for the head, or vice versa. I'd like to
take it back to Iraq. I think the head would be happier there."
Zettler said it might be possible to
reunite them some day, when Iraq settles down, and suggested the figurine
could then travel back and forth between Baghdad and Philadelphia, in a
kind of unified display of their joint ownership.
Treasures From the Royal Tombs of Ur
* Opens Saturday and runs through
September at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and
Anthropology, 3260 South St. Hours: 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday to
Saturday; 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday.
* An Ancient Near East Celebration from
noon to 4:30 p.m. Saturday to mark the opening of the exhibit is free with
museum admission ($8, $5 students and seniors, free for Penn museum
members, children under 6 and PENNcard holders). Information: 215-898-4890