Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
March 9, 2004

Iraqi visitors at Penn admire ancient displays - and display cases

Last April, Mohammed Abdul-Rezaq watched in anguish as looters ransacked the Iraq National Museum in Baghdad, where he is an expert in archaeological excavations.

"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 listening."

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 museums work.

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 internships here."

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 telephone interview.

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 know.")

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 or home page   
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