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Penn Museum Unveils New Middle East Galleries

Explore the incredible collection, learn about the rise of cities, and make connections with the past.

The Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology will unveil the new Middle East Galleries April 21, the first step in their massive building transformation and permanent exhibit renovations to take place over the next year and a half. This new exhibit will take visitors on a journey exploring how ancient Mesopotamian societies lived, to the creation of the world’s first cities. The exhibit contains 1,200 objects from Iran and Iraq, along with stories and experiences to put the objects in context and showing parallels to our own lives.


The new gallery space displays the ancient artifacts in a decidedly 21st century way, and also signals the Penn Museum’s new approach that accompanies their bold renovations, as it reaches out to viewers of all ages with interactive components and thought-provoking presentation.


“We are trying to tell a story of humanity, of people who were not so different from you and me… they faced the same sorts of problems that people in an urban setting face today,” explained Curator Holly Pittman at the gallery opening.


The exhibit takes you from the individual and family, from very early farming settlements, to the end of the Ottoman Empire, through the growth of civilization and up to the first cities.


Visitors will see the trappings of home life, from decorative pottery to a baby rattle. Simply by handling a replica of a crude bowl used to hand rations out to workers, on the other hand, we can imagine the work/life separation that arose alongside the more permanent structures that became cities, once the people decided to stay in one place all year round.


The lifestyle and experience embodied in these objects, ranging from simple to ornate, really comes across, as they are tied back to the individual that would have used them, their place in the timeline, and their function in society.


As urbanization arises, we are taken to the city of Ur, and see the magnificent jewels of Queen Puabi, coins that can be viewed with sliding magnifiers behind glass, and more recognizable items that tie ancient cities to ours today—they even compare a SEPTA map to an ancient one!


If these comparisons are a little twee, they highlight an obvious effort on behalf of the museum to link our modern experience to that of ancient Mesopotamia, and emphasize our shared humanity — these days, that kind of empathy may require a lack of subtlety. At the same time, this approach lends itself perfectly to bringing young visitors into the exhibit in an engaging and personal way.


The Kid’s Guide to the Middle East Galleries is free to visitors, and includes a scavenger hunt and other questions that spark the imagination. There are activities to complete on every page of the guide and plenty of space for notes and drawings (just call it your kid’s first field notebook!), as well as fun questions like “Which real-life person from the past would you be?” complete with challenges for each personality.


Kids will also appreciate that elements like touchscreens and tangible replicas are at their eye level throughout the exhibit, so they won’t miss out on any of the experience. Some touchscreens detail the artifacts, while others delve deeper into ancient life, letting the viewer choose to see life as a mother, a priest, a merchant, or a craftsman. The tangible replicas are a nice touch, as they provide a sensory component to an exhibit full of things no one can touch!

Opening Festival

April 21 and 22, 10 am — 3:30 pm


The Middle East Galleries open this weekend, and the Penn Museum has planned a weekend-long celebration with plenty of family-friendly events. Kids can take part in LEGO city building, storytime, games, and workshops in Middle Eastern arts like drumming, calligraphy, and more. Craft activities, like making a hamsa and a bull mask, will be going on throughout the weekend as well. There will also be visits from the Philadelphia Zoo’s “Zoo on Wheels,” bringing animals native to the Middle East.


The opening festival will coincide with the Philadelphia Science Festival’s Be a Scientist! Day, so there will be an engineering workshop, where you can build your own city structures using different materials — like marshmallows and spaghetti — and see how they hold up!


There will also be a Middle East Bazaar, where you can purchase tea and food from the region.  In addition, there will be performances and demonstrations in music, soccer, and dance.

The Penn Museum is located at 3260 South St. in Philadelphia, and is open Tuesdays through Sundays from 10 am — 5 pm. Admission is $15 for adults, $13 for seniors, $10 for kids ages 6-17, and free for kids age 5 and under, museum members, military personnel, and PennCard holders.


Photographs by Laura Swartz. 

Contributing Writer