Bomb strikes, buildings being destroyed and ISIS members taking a sledgehammer to a wall — these are some of the first images you’ll see when you visit Penn Museum’s special exhibition “Cultures in the Crossfire: Stories from Syria and Iraq.”
The video featuring these images, playing on a loop via a monitor positioned before the entrance of the actual gallery, is only 30 seconds and isn’t meant to be the focus of the exhibition but nonetheless is meant to serve as a reminder to visitors of the violence and destruction that refugees are still trying to escape today.
As the exhibition name suggests, “Cultures in the Crossfire,” which is open now through November 2018, is displaying some of the historic objects under threat of being destroyed in the ongoing conflict in Syria. Those objects, which come from Penn Museum’s Near East and Mediterranean collections as well as the University of Pennsylvania’s libraries, include items such as ancient baby rattles or zoology manuscripts.
But it’s not just the physical objects that are at stake — the cultural heritage and identities of the people in Syria and Iraq are in danger of being lost, said Lauren Ristvet, associate professor of anthropology at Penn and co-curator of the exhibit. She explained that things like the displacement and constant moving of communities in these regions make it so that these people’s ways of living will eventually disappear.
It’s why the Penn Cultural Heritage Center (PCHC), which helped develop the exhibition, and its work in helping preserve that cultural history is one of the key components of the exhibition. The exhibition is based off a poster exhibit that PCHC put together for U.S. Congress back in 2015 when Congress was discussing a bill called the Protect and Preserve International Cultural Property Act, which would impose restrictions on importing Syrian artifacts in order to try to prevent looting and trafficking of these items from the Islamic State.
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Thanks to the advocacy efforts from major institutions such as Penn Museum and PCHC, that bill eventually became public law last year under Pres. Barack Obama. In much the same way, Ristvet, who has been working in Middle Eastern archaeology efforts since 1999, hopes this exhibition will bring awareness to the human lives and stories that are being destroyed in these regions, as well as the hope that is present through the work organizations like PCHC are doing to curtail the destruction.
For Kate Quinn, director of exhibitions and programs at Penn Museum, a way of accomplishing this is by also helping visitors feel connected to the exhibition as a whole. That’s where Syrian-born artist Issam Kourbaj comes in with what Quinn describes as a contemporary “art intervention” to the more historic pieces on display.
Through his seven works scattered throughout the exhibit, Kourbaj encourages people to empathize with the atrocities and suffering going on in Syria. One of the pieces is a short video called “Strike” that shows Kourbaj striking a match from three different angles and then dropping that match to the floor, which is meant to symbolize the missile and bomb strikes that pervade the country.
“For collections like ours, it can sometimes be a bit difficult for the public to grasp why they should care and why it’s important because the material is so old, it’s hard to bring that relevance to the forefront,” Quinn said. “This to me was a really great way by which they could understand and connect with it more readily — it’s a visual tool.”
But it’s not all doom and gloom for the exhibition.
On Sept. 17, Kourbaj will be hosting a free community art workshop at Penn Museum that works in conjunction with the exhibition, called “Dark Waters: 2,379 Days and Counting,” where he’s inviting people to help create small tin foil and plaster refugee boats — 2,379 to be exact, to represent the number of days that will have passed since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011.
Kourbaj will then perform his video piece “Strike” live in front of an audience by having the boats set sail in the museum’s courtyard foundation while striking 2,379 matches. All of this is taking place as part of September’s Peace Day Philly programming.
“There’s nothing more that an exhibition will ever be able to do for you unless you activate it, unless you help it,” Quinn said, “and to do that, you have to have people there to bring it all to life again and to talk about what’s on display.”