Those attending the new “Secrets of the Silk Road” exhibit at the Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology Saturday will miss out on what was supposed to be its main attraction.
Due to what Chinese language and literature professor Victor Mair described as a “horrible bureaucratic snafu” between the “highest members of both the Chinese and American governments,” the exhibit — of which Mair is the Consulting Curator — cannot display 150 rare Chinese objects, including two 3,500-year-old mummies, the first to be shown in the United States.
Mair wrote in an e-mail that about three weeks ago, “the Chinese government suddenly told us — without giving any explanation why — that we are not permitted to open the crates.”
“I know the real reasons for what has happened, but probably won’t be able to reveal them until the exhibition is over,” Mair added, calling the matter “extremely delicate.”
The Penn Museum has spent nearly two years and over $2 million preparing to display the ancient Chinese artifacts, which, according to Mair, have been in the museum’s storage room for around a month.
“I’m sure members of the museum are unhappy that this happened,” Ware College House Dean Utsav Schurmans said. “This should have been an amazing exhibit and now the very reason for it is not going to be here.”
As a result of the changes, the exhibit will be free with regular Museum admission. It is still set to open this Saturday and will run until June 5.
John Tresch, assistant professor of history and sociology of science, is sending one of his classes to the Museum today for a lecture on the Silk Road.
Despite his disappointment over the recent news, Tresch still plans on visiting the exhibit himself and will encourage his students to attend as well.
“What is the benefit of seeing an actual mummy?” he said. “It’s kind of neat, but whether the mummies are there or not, you could learn a lot.”
“I’m not aware of any kind of thing like this happening here before,” Schurmans said.
Tresch was equally surprised, but acknowledged that exhibits in other museums have been involved in similar political controversies.
“There are always arguments about who owns artifacts taken from another land and who has the right to show them,” he said.
Tresch was still surprised about the Museum’s predicament since the artifacts in question have already been shown in the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, Calif., and the Houston Museum of Natural Science.
Mair and others are still working hard to negotiate with the Chinese government. However, the negotiations have been delayed since Chinese offices have closed to celebrate the Chinese New Year.
“Even though the opening has already been delayed, we have not given up,” Mair said.
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