The way you look at ancient history and world cultures is about to change.
The newly reinstalled 6,000-square-foot Middle East Galleries at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia is the first of a planned series of “Signature Galleries,” encompassing more than 44,000 square feet of gallery space. “This is the first stage of a very large overhaul of the museum’s Signature Galleries. Some haven’t been touched (updated) for 30+ years,” said Steve Tinney, coordinating curator of the Penn Museum’s Middle East Galleries, in a phone interview.
Why start with the Middle East?
In a press release, Penn Museum director Julian Siggers said: “The story of how ancient Mesopotamian societies gave rise to the world’s first cities — cities not so very different from Philadelphia, America’s first World Heritage City — is one that we are uniquely qualified to tell. Urbanization and globalization continue apace today. With this signature exhibition, we are exploring how and why we got to where we are.”
That region of the world is of particular significance to the Philly institution. Founded in 1887, the Penn Museum sent the first United States archaeological expedition to the Middle East, according to a museum press release. They went digging to find out more about the ancient Mesopotamian site of Nippur. Back in 1887 that was in the Ottoman Empire.
The museum has since amassed a collection of more than 100,000 Near Eastern artifacts; a collection of cuneiform tablets bearing early literary, historical and economic texts; Islamic period literary collections; and an archive of historic documents, field notes and photographs.
For the purposes of the new Middle East Galleries, “Middle East” is broadly defined as the area covering Egypt to Turkey, Iran (formerly Persia), Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula and parts of Central Asia.
Tinney was one of 10 scholars that collaborated over three and a half years to develop what he called “a beautiful and very succinct distillation” of a 10,000-year human journey that incorporates nearly 1,200 objects from the Penn Museum’s collection — including such treasures as the crown jewelry of a Sumerian queen from 4,500 years ago, a ram-in-the-thicket statuette and one of the oldest-known wine vessels in the world. “There’s a lot that’s on display that hasn’t been before,” he said.
A ram in the thicket? As in the story of Abraham and Isaac from Genesis in The Bible?
According to Tinney, the significance of that sculpture from the royal cemetery at Ur — made of gold, silver, lapis lazuli, copper, shell, red limestone and bitumen — is that it’s the earliest example of Sumerian art that survived the passing of the centuries. It was once part of a piece of royal furniture.
So when they made the renovations, they put more artifacts on display — got it. Did they add modern interactive elements that my kids can connect with, and relate to?
The Middle East Galleries — which is actually a suite of galleries — now have large-scale video projections, made-to-scale models, illustrator’s renderings of scenes from the reconstructed past, interactive stations and touchable reproductions. Visitors can “meet” some of the citizens of the city of Ur, including a merchant, a priest and a stone cutter, at one interactive station.
A Tepe Gawra (present-day Iran) house model and interactive station will provide an opportunity to see where archaeological objects were uncovered — including cooking pots, spindle whorls for weaving and a child’s rattle.
You have the British consultant Haley Sharpe Design to thank for coming up with all that.
What does this new and improved configuration have to say about what living in cities was like in the BC days?
According to Dan Rahimi, the museum’s executive director of galleries, by 2700 BCE (Many scientists and academicians use “Before Current Era” and “Current Era” when referring to years) about 80 percent of Mesopotamians lived in cities, and today, 81 percent of U.S. citizens live in cities.
One of the most important facets of Mesopotamian civilization is it was the origin of cities and complex city life — including diverse peoples speaking multiple languages, with increasing work specializations, Tinney said.
Of all the villages and cities Penn researchers have excavated over the years, Tinney said the centerpiece has to be what came out of the 1922-1934 archaeological dig of Ur in present-day southern Iraq. It unearthed remarkable treasures from royal tombs and a bull-headed lyre — one of the earliest musical instruments in the world.
Bustling with more than 20,000 inhabitants, Ur had a central administration, legal codes, districts, suburbs, monumental buildings, industry, plus abundant arts and literature.
Beginning with a more than 4,000-year-old human footprint discovered on an ancient mud brick used in the construction of Ur, the exhibition follows a journey through millennia — from village life in early settlements, all the way up to cities and their relationships with neighboring cities, emerging empires, and far-flung trade regions around the world.
How does the Penn Museum connect the past to the present here?
Saturday and Sunday afternoons in May, if you get there before 2:30 you can get additional perspectives from “Global Guides” Yaroub Al-Obaidi, Abdulhadi Al-Karfawi, or Ali Arif, all originally from Iraq; or Moumena Saradar, who comes from Syria. They’ll be sharing their own personal experiences of the region, combined with historical content, during special public gallery tours.
Additional public tours and experiences throughout the summer are listed at www.penn.museum/visit/tours.
Additional Global Guides will be recruited as the new Africa and Mexico and Central America galleries open in 2019.