Ancient artifacts bring new gallery to life

So you've got this treasure trove of over 15,000 artifacts from the ancient lands of the Bible, the collected fruits of nearly 80 years of archaeological research. What to do with them?

If you're Bruce Rutledge, assistant professor of anthropology and assistant curator of the University of Pennsylvania Museum's Near East section, you figure out a way to make them tell a story about how people really lived back then. That story is told in the new permanent "Canaan and Ancient Israel" gallery, which Rutledge co-curated with Linda Bregstein (G'93), who now teaches at Mercer County Community College.

The exhibit, like all permanent exhibits at the Museum, is based on its own collections of artifacts. "The gallery is composed wholly of our objects, all of which we have acquired through legal excavations," he said, noting that Museum archaeologists always work with the express permission of the countries in which they dig.

But it's not enough to just select objects from the collection, put them in display cases, and walk away.

"Our first goal was to tie these objects together in a somewhat coherent manner," he said.

The exhibit was conceived in keeping with the Museum's basic mission. "Our museum is explicitly designed to present research done by Penn scholars to the public," Routledge said. "It also has an educational mission, but that mission is shaped by our research focus as well."

One of the challenges in doing this for the biblical archaeology gallery was that, unlike most of the Museum's other galleries, this would cover a subject that most Museum visitors already know something about. "They will not come to this exhibit with a lack of familiarity, but on the other hand, they don't come to it knowing the things archaeology can tell you about how people lived 3,000 to 4,000 years ago," he said.

This meant an exhibit that is heavy on the stuff of everyday life in the ancient Holy Land - objects used in cooking, dyeing and weaving, jewelry and other decorative objects, religious items and the like.

Mother holding infant is a fragment of a figurine of the Judean or Persian Period (5th to 7th century B.C.) recovered from Beth Shean, Israel, in the Canaan and Ancient Israel show at the Museum. Such temder embraces are rarely represented in ancient art.

A second challenge involves keeping a permanent exhibit fresh over its decade-plus lifespan so that it can continue to engage both adults and children across repeat visits. According to Routledge, this means building flexibility into the exhibit so that it can provide multiple educational opportunities.

That flexibility takes several forms. One is in the design of the text labels that explain the objects and their significance. "We've tried to present the material in such a way that it can be seen at different levels," he said. "You can get something out of it by going through fairly quickly, looking at images and titles, or you can see something more by looking at it more closely, reading all the text and examining the objects."

For school children touring the exhibit, the Museum's Education Department plays a large role in keeping the exhibit fresh with each visit by using different scripts to explain what the children see. And there are changing interactive elements to the exhibit - all decidedly low-tech.

"We decided not to invest heavily in computer technology for the exhibit," Routledge explained. "One reason why is because we wanted the groups who come through the exhibit to interact as groups, and computer technology is still something that is experienced individually. It also requires a constant commitment to upgrading and maintenance. It would be bad to have electronic exhibits that don't work, or computerized exhibits that are less sophisticated than what people have on their computers at home."

Which doesn't mean that the exhibit requires no upgrading or maintenance at all. On the contrary, Routledge and the Museum's services staff rely on feedback from visitors and from museum professionals to make changes in the exhibit. After just one month, he said, "we can see some things [we need to work on] right away - simple things like orientation. We need to improve the orientation with more visuals," he said.

And there are more dramatic changes that can be made, changes that would tie the exhibit more closely to things visitors know about from their own lives. "We have a section on agriculture with a quote from an ancient calendar showing seasons for planting," he said. "We missed an opportunity to tie these into the holidays of the Jewish calendar, which would make it more meaningful for our visitors." Routledge said that the Museum's exhibit staff is currently talking with biblical scholars and members of several religious communities to identify other possible ties.

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Originally published on January 28, 1999