Treasuring the Past— and Saving it for the Future

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One of the world’s oldest-known musical instruments, a wooden lyre with a bull’s head of gold and lapis lazuli, commands attention inside the Dietrich Gallery of the Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. When a group of 23 visitors came here in March, it was not surprising that many wanted to be photographed beside the 4,500-year-old Sumerian treasure, which had been excavated during the 1920s by C. Leonard Woolley in what is now Iraq. What was a bit unusual was the small flock of news media recording each snap of the visitors’ cameras.

The 23 were a delegation of Iraqi museum specialists spending two days at the Museum as part of a five-week exchange program sponsored by the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA). 

The group was comprised of 15 women and eight men who work at museums in Babylon, Diala, Najaf, and Baghdad. During their visit they saw the Babylonian Tablet room, the ancient Near East collection, and a sneak preview of “Treasures from the Royal Tombs of Ur,” a nationally traveling exhibition that has returned briefly to the Museum. The visitors also met with exhibition-design and artifact-conservation experts.

Though the war in Iraq has expanded the American public’s awareness of Mesopotamian civilization, Dr. Richard Zettler, associate professor of anthropology and associate curator-in-charge of the Museum’s Near East Section, noted that Penn’s interest goes back to 1888, when some prominent Philadelphians, headed by Penn Provost William Pepper, sponsored an archaeological expedition at the holy site of Nippur. “We look forward to a long history of exchanges in the future, including, I hope personally, exhibits from this museum in Baghdad, and exhibits from Iraqi museums coming here to Philadelphia.” 

Hayat Jav-Allah, curator of the Baquba Museum, called the exchange program “a courageous step and a smart step … by both Iraqis and Americans.” He decried the looting of Iraqi museums and was delighted to see antiquities from Mesopotamia properly conserved and displayed here. “Even when they are away from their origin, if they are in secure hands, nobody can take away from these antiquities their identity.” 


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