Responding in part to ongoing attacks in Syria and Iraq, the Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology opened a new exhibition on April 8 that explores the cultural heritage of the region and Penn’s role in ensuring its preservation.
Titled “Cultures in the Crossfire: Stories from Syria and Iraq,” the exhibit will run through Nov. 26, 2018, and features 50 artifacts from the museum’s collections as well as Arabic manuscripts, music and documentary film clips.
The exhibit also showcases contemporary art — a first for the museum. Artwork from contemporary Syrian artist Issam Kourbaj, whose work focuses on images from his homeland, is featured alongside ancient artifacts.
Kourbaj’s contributions include “Strike i, ii, and iii,” a series of video clips of burning matchsticks and “Seed,” an installation incorporating a plush toy caught in a hand grinder.
Speaking at the museum on April 7, the artist said that despite the destruction of cities and illegal trade of artifacts in the Middle East, there is still much to be done to preserve the artifacts that remain.
Director of Research and Programs at the Penn Cultural Heritage Center Brian Daniels agreed, adding that the center coordinates with 17 international organizations to preserve Syrian and Iraqi culture.
“You can’t take yourself seriously as engaged in cultural heritage issues if you’re not responding in some way to the current crisis in Syria and Iraq,” he said.
Daniels emphasized that while Penn experts are not currently working on the ground in the Middle East, they are coordinating with refugee communities in other ways, such as the preservation of cultural sites.
Daniels co-directs the center’s Safeguarding the Heritage of Syria and Iraq Project, which supports professionals and activists in conflict areas working to protect cultural heritage.
“We’re coordinating through the refugee and diaspora community that has sprung up, and academics who left the country,” Daniels said.
Syrian-born archaeologist Salam Al Kuntar, who serves as another co-director for SHOSI, is one of these academics.
She has been involved in the center’s cultural preservation efforts since 2013 and played a large role in creating this exhibition.
“We are more focused on areas that don’t really get help from international organizations,” she said. While doctors and teachers may have more obvious roles to play in helping those affected by conflict in Syria and Iraq, archaeologists also play a role, she added.
“It’s symbolic,” she said. “This is what we know and do best.”
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