The Penn Museum Houses Ancient Middle Eastern Artifacts in the U.S

By Wahrenberger, Kenneth | Islamic Horizons, November/December 2018 | Go to article overview

The Penn Museum Houses Ancient Middle Eastern Artifacts in the U.S


Wahrenberger, Kenneth, Islamic Horizons


MANY YOUNG AMERICANS VISIT ART AND CULTURAL MUSEUMS BEFORE reaching adolescence, as had the 6-year-olds I used to guide through the Philadelphia Museum of Art. As a result, metropolitan-based Americans have some idea of the cultural heritage of both the U.S. and of other countries. But one recent exhibition, the Penn Museum's "Cultures in the Crossfire: Stories from Syria and Iraq" (ended on Nov. 27,2018), made me aware that the same cannot be said of the Levant region.

At the forefront of this reality is the 2011 Syrian civil war, which has wreaked havoc on the cultural identity of one of the world's oldest civilizations. All six of Syria's World Heritage Sites have been on UNESCO's List of World Heritage in Danger since 2013, and the world-renowned museums in Raqqa, Palmyra and Aleppo have been looted or harmed, all because of the ISIS militants' iconoclastic crusade. ISIS shocked the world in early 2015 when they released videos showing the destruction of ancient artifacts from the Mosul Museum and the disfigurement of monuments from Nimrud and Nineveh. Still more shocking was the profit they made from black-market sales.

Throughout the 19th- and 20th-centuries, Western powers deprived the region of its cultural heritage while amassing impressive colonial treasure chests of ancient Near Eastern artifacts. The now abolished practice of partage, which spells out the stated percentage of object ownership between the governing body that owns the archeological dig site and the foreign research organization sponsoring the project, enabled Westerners to cart off literally millions of items. More recently, as U.S. troops were entering Baghdad in April 2003, gangs of thieves stole an estimated 15,000 items from the National Museum of Iraq over an unbroken 48-hour period. Responding to claims that such heinous cultural vandalism was due to an oversight by the invading military forces, Department of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld remarked, "Stuff happens." The international community has, to its credit, spent the last 15 years trying to locate the lost objects.

In 2010, Oklahoma City-based Hobby Lobby exacerbated the issue by purchasing more than 5,500 Iraqi objects with suspicious origins from dealers in the U. A.E. and Israel. In 2017 the company, which financed Washington D.C.'s recently opened Museum of the Bible (https://www.museumofthebible.org), agreed to pay a $3 million fine and return thousands of artifacts. The Iraqi objects were allegedly smuggled into the U.S. using false shipping labels, inaccurate item descriptions, phony invoices and other unlawful trafficking tactics. In May 2018 Hobby Lobby finally handed them over to Iraq's ambassador to the U.S.

The University of Pennsylvania, which sent the first on-site U.S. archeological expedition to historic Mesopotamia in 1887, now possesses over 100,000 artifacts whose origins span more than 10,000 years. In April 2018, its museum reopened its Middle East galleries after a 3-year, $5 million renovation project to showcase 1,200 of its finest holdings.

The Penn Museum was established in 1887 to house the first expedition's findings in Nippur, an ancient Sumerian city in Iraq. The new galleries reveal an array of Nippur's cuneiform tablets, ancient Mesopotamia's earliest system of writing. In 1922, Penn began working with the British Museum to uncover the Royal Cemetery of Ur (Tell al-Muqayyar, Iraq). Among the displayed bounty from Ur is a rich gold, silver and blue lapis lazuli statue of a ram in a thicket and a lyre fragment depicting a bull's head. To top it off, a 6'7" relief of a winged bearded man (genie) from the palace of Nimrud's Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II towers over the gallery; ISIS damaged the original site in 2015. …

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