• May 31, 2018
  • Iraq Solidarity News (Al-Thawra)
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Three Iraqi natives and a Syrian have been enlisted as guides to share a modern cultural perspective with visitors to new Middle Eastern galleries at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia. The guides sprinkle personal stories among historic content as they lead groups through the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology’s new galleries, telling tales going back 10,000 years. 

“People really have trouble understanding and connecting with objects from the ancient past,” Penn Museum’s Ellen M. Owens said. “People who come from these places, even in contemporary times, can find a connection with the objects and they provide an interesting window into what it’s like to walk through these magnificent ancient ziggurats or visit a marketplace where traditions go back thousands of years.” 

On a recent tour, guide Abdulhadi al-Karfawi pointed out cuneiform tablets used for accounting, legal text and, in one case, a schoolboy’s recounting of an argument with his father. Using a blunt reed on a clay tablet, the boy detailed how his father had scolded him, saying, “Why are you wasting time? Get to school! Apply yourself at school!” 

“I read that and think of my father, who was a tough person who had 15 boys and girls but was on top of everything,” said Karfawi, 40, a former translator for the U.S. Army in Baghdad who settled in the U.S. with his wife and children. “Today, as a father, I have the same argument with my kid. I never thought it was happening thousands of years ago.” 

After taking Karfawi’s tour Lalaine Little, director of the Pauly Friedman Art Gallery at Misericordia University, said she enjoyed hearing his personal story of sleeping on rooftop mattresses with his family during the hottest nights. “There’s something universal about a family camping out, looking at the stars,” Little said. 

“Sometimes you go on these tours and there are canned responses [from guides], but his were very heartfelt.” The Penn Museum initiative echoes an earlier one initiated at Berlin’s Islamic Museum, which invited members of the city’s Syrian refugee community to guide visitors through its collection. 

In another Penn Museum gallery, Moumena Saradar, 41, paused in front of bronze and brass balance scales and weights dating back to the 1800s. The scales are similar to the ones used at the market near her home in Damascus. Saradar remembers when, as a teenager, her mother taught her to use the scales so she could double check the weights of the fruits and vegetables she’d purchased from a vendor. 

“If he cheats her,” Saradar said, drawing laughter, “everyone in the town would know.” Rusty Baker, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group PA Museums, said programs like the Penn Museum’s Global Guides provide visitors with a richer experience and could help grow audiences. At Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary historic site, former prisoners and guards lead tours, he said, while some tribal museums feature Native American guides. 

“Museums have been looking at demographics and asking, ‘Who is not here and how do we do something about that?’” Baker said. “These programs are an opportunity to provide a more authentic experience as opposed to a typical tour with a docent who is knowledgeable and passionate but not culturally connected.” 

Penn Museum will continue to expand the Global Guides program, Owens said, as it opens two new galleries showcasing Mexico/Central America and Africa in the next year. The museum is working with two organisations that help new immigrants find trainees. Part of that training includes discussing provenance and how guides feel about seeing objects from their home countries on display in the U.S. Guides in the current group say they are happy to have pieces of their old homeland in their new one. 

“Every time I go through the gallery, I feel like this is Iraq,” Karfawi said. “My grandma wore a headpiece like [Queen Puabi]. ... The dishes are so lovely and they remind me of my sister serving food.” Saradar said she saw the exhibition as a way to build cultural understanding. “This is the best thing I could do, being a messenger for my culture. I wouldn’t be able to do that without these objects,” she said. 

by Natalie Pompilio


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