Iraqis visit Penn Museum

The Penn Museum has spent more than a century collecting and preserving the riches of ancient Iraq. On March 8, it got a chance to help Iraqis reclaim and preserve their own shattered treasures.

That was the day that 23 young professionals from Iraqi museums arrived in Philadelphia for a two-day visit to the Museum to learn the latest techniques for preserving and displaying ancient artifacts.

While there, the group also got a sneak peek at “Treasures from the Royal Tombs of Ur,” the traveling exhibition of artifacts from the historic 1923 Penn Museum-British Museum joint expedition in Iraq that opened to the public March 13. The visitors also toured the Museum’s Mainwaring Wing storage facilities and heard talks from Museum curators about conservation and exhibition design.

The visit was part of a five-week, four-city tour sponsored by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Cultural Affairs and organized by the Council of American Overseas Research Centers. State Department representative Susan Borja G’85 explained, “The aim of the institute is to prepare the next generation of Iraqi cultural stewards to preserve their heritage and establish exchanges with U.S. institutions.”

Doors open to women

Giving women a greater role in cultural stewardship was also part of the institute’s mission; 15 of the 23 participants were female. One of them, Hayat Jav-Allah, curator of the Baquba Museum, spoke of the damage Iraqi museums suffered in the wake of Saddam Hussein’s ouster. “I fully believe that the looting of the Iraqi museums upset every human being who is part of human society,” she said. Jav-Allah also praised the care American curators gave Mesopotamian artifacts in their possession.

Richard Zettler, associate curator-in-charge of the Museum’s Near East section and curator of the “Royal Tombs of Ur” exhibit, expressed the hope that this visit was just the beginning. “We look forward to a long list of exchanges in the future, including exchanges of exhibits from our museum in Iraq and exhibits from Iraqi museums here,” he said.

Originally published on April 1, 2004