On Sunday, 17 September 2017, Philadelphia's public joined Syrian artist Issam Kourbaj in launching 2,379 miniature tin-foil boats whose number commemorates the days passed since the start of the Syrian civil war. The boats resembled the crowds that filled the streets of Dara'a to protest the torture of students at the beginning of Syria's Arab Spring and consequent civil war, or the 5 million Syrians registered as refugees by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees since then. Most tragically, the boats commemorate refugees that have crossed the Mediterranean Sea on fatal rubber dinghies. Kourbaj has staged such serial performances across the world using time, water, fire, and the accumulation of miniature objects as a form of simultaneous commemoration and protest. His installation in Philadelphia directly converses with archaeology and the material culture of Late Antiquity. After we leave the fountain where the boats were launched, we enter the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, where seven of Kourbaj's installations stand next to funerary stele from Palmyra, a mosaic from Antioch, an Abbasid ceramic bowl, and other museum treasures. Kourbaj is based at the University of Cambridge, where he has already explored resonances with objects from the Fitzwilliam Museum. The 2,379 miniature boats, or Dark Water, were directly inspired by Syrian antiquities at the Fitzwilliam (Fig. 1 ). His installation in Philadelphia is part of a most ambitious exhibition curated by the Penn Cultural Heritage Center (PennCHC), an organization founded in 2008 to address the preservation and promotion of community-based cultural heritage globally.

FIG. 1.

A family of visitors explores Issam Kourbaj's Dark Water, Burning World (2016), an installation of boats repurposed from old bikes’ mudguards and inspired by fifth-century BCE Syrian boats. Photo courtesy University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

FIG. 1.

A family of visitors explores Issam Kourbaj's Dark Water, Burning World (2016), an installation of boats repurposed from old bikes’ mudguards and inspired by fifth-century BCE Syrian boats. Photo courtesy University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

The academic community has been watching from abroad an unprecedented magnitude of destruction carefully choreographed to be consumed through video and social media. Having played a catalytic role in shaping nationalist, colonialist, and imperialist narratives in the Middle East, archaeology is caught in a bind.1 For one, it recognizes that it has constructed the cultural value of monuments that are now symbolically destroyed as highly-staged media events.2 At the same time, it increasingly assumes the ethical responsibility of safeguarding but lacks the means to execute. The archaeologists’ response is further exaggerated by a heightened guilt of privilege vis-à-vis native colleagues and the discomfort of saving monuments over human lives. Archaeologists, museum professionals, preservationists, and artists have responded in many ways to the paradoxical predicament of heritage destruction. The Louvre, for instance, staged an immersive digital experience of four threatened sites (Khorsabad, Palmyra, Damascus, and Crac des Chevaliers) with associated objects at the Grand Palace, the site of the Universal Exposition of 1900.3 Oxford's Institute of Digital Archaeology built a replica of Palmyra's triumphal arch on Trafalgar Square, London, after ISIS destroyed the original.4 Both institutions flexed their technological muscle of 3D scanning, remote sensing, and digital forensics, receiving some criticism for technological imperialism. Some institutions, like the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, brought out of their vaults objects from the region.5 Others, like the Sackler Gallery in Washington, celebrated living craft traditions by bringing woodworkers, potters, ceramicists, carpet makers, and jewelers from Afghanistan.6 Yet others, like UC Berkeley, let the diaspora curate materials important to their own story.7 

The art world has also responded to the crisis in different ways. Most notoriously, Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei wrapped the Konzerthaus in Berlin with refugee life jackets, photographed himself as the corpse of the Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi in Lesbos, and led protests in London and Denmark.8 Even Doctors Without Borders employed a museum strategy. Traveling to ten cities in the U.S., Forced from Home assembled original artifacts like tents, dinghies, and medical supplies that were presented by docents who had served as volunteers.9 The interface between archaeology and the arts is also pronounced in the work of contemporary photographers. After the French government demolished the Jungle, the notorious camp at Calais, Gideon Mendel collected artifacts left behind (toys, tooth brushes, etc.) and photographed them with forensic accuracy.10 In the project What We Carried: Fragments from the Cradle of Civilization, Jim Lommasson photographed what refugees brought from Syria and Iraq to their new homes in Portland, Boston, Chicago, Dearborn, and Atlanta.11 The humanitarian crisis in Syria and Iraq has facilitated a new dialogue between artists and archaeologists, whether initiated by museums with rich archaeological collections or by contemporary artists with rich archaeological sensibilities. The new field known as the Archaeology of the Contemporary World, moreover, has vigorously responded to documenting forced and undocumented migration.12 

FIG. 2.

A view of the central space in Cultures in the Crossfire: Stories from Syria and Iraq. Photo by University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

FIG. 2.

A view of the central space in Cultures in the Crossfire: Stories from Syria and Iraq. Photo by University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

Cultures in the Crossfire: Stories from Syria and Iraq belongs to this important moment in cultural praxis where traditional disciplinary boundaries are frequently crossed. It is an extraordinary exhibition in its ambitions to engage with three distinct modes of representation. The exhibition does not simply push three respective boundaries but forces them to coexist within the same space, while viewers construct their own narratives. One could parse Cultures in Crossfire as the meshing of three distinct curatorial strategies: autonomous archaeological objects in vitrines, thematically interrelated pieces of conceptual art (Kourbaj's seven installations), and didactic material about contemporary issues and solutions in printed words and images (Fig. 2 ).

Cultures in the Crossfire is on view within the University of Pennsylvania museum, an otherwise encyclopedic research institute. As such, the exhibition replaces neither the traditional museum nor the traditional academy, but it brings them into an urgent conversation in one space. After entering the gallery doors, viewers are faced with an introductory wall that asks them to “Imagine Losing Your Identity, History and Homeland.” Three screens embedded in the wall play video footage from the destruction of three monuments: the minaret of Al-Omari Mosque in Bosra, Assyrian reliefs in Nimrud, and the shrine of Prophet Jonah in Mosul. Silent, simultaneous, and repeating, the videos remind us of the proliferation of such images in our televisions, tablets, and smart phones. Their viewing here, however, is supplemented by an uncanny, amplified sound coming from behind: the first of Kourbaj's seven installations, Strike I, II, III, projected on three much larger video screens. We watch the serial lighting of matches from three points of views, the canonical modes of spatial mapping (plan, elevation, perspective). The plan screen (the largest) shows burned matches on a cross made by the panels of a concrete pavement; the elevation screen shows Kourbaj's hand as it passes in front of a red wall; and the perspective screen shows the accumulation. Right away, we are placed between two forms of video repetition, the ordinarily violent newsreel of destruction and the mundane act of lighting matches. Kourbaj has slowed down time and expanded space so that we can turn our attention to the archaeological objects placed in vitrines throughout the room, while we also memorialize human suffering through Kourbaj's symbolic ritual. Regardless of what we learn in the exhibition, our experience of time and space oscillates between mute archaeological objects and the heightened materiality of Kourbaj's installation. Artifact and installation share a common space (the gallery), common materials (plaster, stone, cloth, paper), and a common provenance (Syria and Iraq). The conceptual polarity between excavated historical objects and fabricated contemporary objects is bridged by wall panels of texts and images that educate the viewer about events, cultures, problems, and solutions. The didactic panels, interestingly enough, explain neither the archaeological nor the art objects (beyond a short description), but elucidate a third element, the processes of cultural creation and preservation.

FIG. 3.

Set of first- and second-century C.E. funerary portraits from Palmyra, which demonstrate the complexity and richness of Palmyrene identity. Photo courtesy University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

FIG. 3.

Set of first- and second-century C.E. funerary portraits from Palmyra, which demonstrate the complexity and richness of Palmyrene identity. Photo courtesy University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

Following this tripartite curatorial typology, we start with the archaeological objects. All the pieces in the exhibition come from the University of Pennsylvania or local Philadelphia collections. They include sculpture, seals, manuscripts, musical instruments, pottery, mosaics, building material, grave markers, books, and toys. The most interesting late antique objects are five grave steles from Palmyra, a Jewish tombstone excavated by Penn in Iraq, glazed ceramics, lamps, silverware, and mosaics (Fig. 3 ). The exhibition has no chronological organization and creates a narrative of multicultural continuity through the Akkadian, Assyrian, Persian, Roman, Byzantine, Islamic, and modern periods. The objects are organized around thematic unities of family life, agriculture, literacy, music, incantation, and childhood. Surrounded by periodic galleries in the rest of the museum, this is a refreshing strategy. The Roman Gallery, for instance, is only 50 paces away, where the visitor can get the encyclopedic context for the late antique objects. The Islamic Gallery, which is currently being redesigned, will open on the floor immediately below in 21 April 2018.

FIG. 4.

Issam Kourbaj, Lost, 2016. Repurposed clothes dipped in plaster with text in Arabic and Greek. Lost deals with the issue of Syrian refugees in Lesbos, Greece. These pieces are made from children's clothing. Each is cut to form one, maximum flat surface—in a way, bringing it back to its origin—and finally dipped in plaster. This clothing holds the ghost of its past, and acts as evidence of and a gravestone for its recent past carrier (the person who never managed to make it, drowned and lost in dark water. Photo courtesy University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

FIG. 4.

Issam Kourbaj, Lost, 2016. Repurposed clothes dipped in plaster with text in Arabic and Greek. Lost deals with the issue of Syrian refugees in Lesbos, Greece. These pieces are made from children's clothing. Each is cut to form one, maximum flat surface—in a way, bringing it back to its origin—and finally dipped in plaster. This clothing holds the ghost of its past, and acts as evidence of and a gravestone for its recent past carrier (the person who never managed to make it, drowned and lost in dark water. Photo courtesy University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

Kourbaj's installations are beautifully integrated with the archeological objects. Next to the Palmyrene funerary portraits hangs Lost, four hanging white children's garments that have been plastered and painted with forensic information referring to the deceased child, such as “UNKNOWN BOY, 7 MONTHS OLD, CHECKERED SHIRT, No. 487, 25-11-2015 [date of burial]” (Fig. 4 ). The writing, in Arabic and Greek, marks the unidentified bodies of children that have drowned while crossing the Aegean Sea and have been buried in Lesbos. Opposite Lost, the installation Seed places a stuffed animal on a meat grinder that produces olive seeds. As we turn the corner, a 19th-century Kurdish doll reminds us of the cultural biography of things shfiting from intimate childhood to accessioned treasure.13 In Homeland: An Excavation, Kourbaj places on a desk cancelled copies of his own passport, stamps, poems, and other documents; they are positioned between ancient seals and medieval rare books. Book of the Dead: Dismemebered is the oldest piece from Kourbaj's collection (2003) and responds the Iraq War. The artist has taken X-ray plates and transformed them through etch marks. Aleppo Soap, Don't Wash Your Hands is the most archaeological piece. It installs the fragments of a bathroom in situ, provoking the visitor to place his hands in the fragments and remember Aleppo's heritage in soap manufacturing, now all destroyed. Dark Water: Burning World is made of miniature metal ships shaped from bicycle rims filled with matches. The public launching of 2,379 boats relates to this piece. Although water is figuratively absent in the exhibition, it emerges as the conceptual centerpiece across the seven installations. Kourbaj writes in Dark Water, “the sea is neither a source of abundance nor beauty for many Syrian refugees. It has turned into a terrifying tunnel through which their fates are decided: to live or die.” The semi-archaeological tendency of cataloging, excavating, and archiving actions is also a central to Kourbaj's pieces. In an attempt to encapsulate contemporary art at our times of crisis, Hal Foster came up with five dominant themes filling the absence of coherent movements. Archiving is one of the dominant modes. Beyond the psychological diagnosis of contemporary paranoia, Foster argues that archiving signals a shift toward utopian thinking, a move away from looking at culture as merely traumatic. Kourbaj's seven installations turn excavation into construction and, using Foster's words, “transform the no place of an archive into the new place of a utopia.”14 Here, we might substitute “the no place of an archive” with the “no place of an archaeological museum.”

FIG. 5.

Several truckloads of sand bags were delivered, and used to protect the Ma'arra Museum mosaics from damage caused by further attacks, 2014–15. Photo courtesy Penn Cultural Heritage Center.

FIG. 5.

Several truckloads of sand bags were delivered, and used to protect the Ma'arra Museum mosaics from damage caused by further attacks, 2014–15. Photo courtesy Penn Cultural Heritage Center.

The third curatorial unity of the exhibition fills the surrounding walls with educational material, including introductory texts about the many civilizations and common themes of Syrian and Iraqi archaeology. Most effectively, this unit highlights the destruction of cultural heritage and strategies of protection and preservation. One panel compares satellite images of Apamea between 2011 and 2012. Hundreds of looting pits are visible like scars on the landscape. In the site of Ebla, southwest of Aleppo, volunteers mapped looting pits and took measures for emergency preservation. The most explicit panel narrates the preventive actions taken by Penn Cultural Heritage Center and Safeguarding the Heritage of Syria and Iraq (SHOSI) at the Ma'arra Museum, which houses an extraordinary collection of late antique and Byzantine mosaics. In October 2014, museum staff, archaeologists, and volunteers cleaned all the mosaics, reinforced them with plastered fabric, and stacked sandbags around them. As expected, in June 2015, the Assad regime dropped a bomb and destroyed the building. The 1,600 square feet of mosaics, however, were saved. The most moving project involves the late antique Syrian villages that were mapped by Howard Crosby Butler's Princeton Expeditions in the 1900s, reinterpreted by Georges Tschalenko in the 1930s, and excavated by Georges Tate and Jean-Pierre Sodini in the 1970s. Already declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the villages were used to house internally displaced Syrians. The Hekkayya Heritage Initiative is supported by the expertise of SHOSI and combines cultural heritage with housing refugee communities.

FIG. 6.

Penn Cultural Heritage Center Hekayya Initiative, Ancient Villages of Northern Syria, 2016. Photo courtesy Penn Cultural Heritage Center.

FIG. 6.

Penn Cultural Heritage Center Hekayya Initiative, Ancient Villages of Northern Syria, 2016. Photo courtesy Penn Cultural Heritage Center.

Even if risking dissonance through the three separate modes of representation (archaeological, artistic, didactic), Cultures in Cross Fire succeeds in articulating the principles and methods of a pioneering organization, the Penn Cultural Heritage Center (PennCHC). As one of the first archaeological museums to articulate stringent policies regarding cultural patrimony, the Penn Museum continued exploring the ethics of studying the past, identity politics among native and national groups, globalization, and the threats over cultural heritage by founding the PennCHC in 2008. The center advises law enforcement, supports local communities, engages in teaching, and performs public outreach (like this exhibition), while also supporting with a cadre of scholars working in sensitive regions. PennCHC's early engagement with Iraq and Syria concentrated on the inventory of sites under threat. Cultures in Crossfire takes scholarship and advocacy out to a museum public.

FIG. 7.

A visitor examines a late antique mosaic panel from Antioch, dating to the third or fourth century C.E. and depicting a peacock. Photo courtesy University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

FIG. 7.

A visitor examines a late antique mosaic panel from Antioch, dating to the third or fourth century C.E. and depicting a peacock. Photo courtesy University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

In recent years, Archaeologists of the Ancient Near East, the Islamic World, and the Eastern Roman Empire have been unable to carry out excavations. Their fields have been placed in a forced moratorium, which has led to strategies of remote sensing, digital humanities, and database building. But it has also forced scholars to confront the heritage of their own discipline and its geopolitical baggage associated with colonialism and American imperialism. The crises in Iraq and Syria seem to have put an end to the unreflective presentation of late antique fine art without providing the modern context of interpretation and extraction. Would an exhibition like Antioch: The Lost Ancient City (2000) be possible today without addressing the global conflict in Syria, Iraq, and Turkey in the 1930s?15 When Peter Brown reviewed Antioch, he did something interesting:16 he immersed himself in his university archives (Princeton University excavated Antioch), and addressed some of the geopolitical contingencies that linked the Louvre (the primary sponsor), the Baltimore and Worcester Art Museums (secondary sponsors), and Princeton's archaeologists (who carried out the excavations and also received mosaics). The Penn Museum has been much more proactive than other academic museums in confronting archaeology's political heritage. Cultures in Cross Fire accomplishes many objectives. It introduces a museum audience to contemporary conflict, it gives license to contemporary artists to choreograph our subjective responses to the museum experience, and it galvanizes popular support on tragic challenges of heritage management. One thing the exhibition does not attempt is to elucidate the geopolitical realities connected with the acquisition of the exhibited objects. The Penn Museum has carried out such institutional self reflection in other venues, most notably in its journal Expedition but it would have been provocative to insert those historiographic insights next to the contemporary practices of looting. The Palmyrene funerary monuments, for instance, were formative in the Museum's early collecting. The director of the Nippur excavations, who acquired some of the steles, writes in 1904, “The Turks strictly forbid the removal of antiquities; but illicit digging continues, and almost every traveller buys and removes a few busts and mortuary inscriptions.”17 Thus, to acknowledge that the archaeological objects on display may have been the complicit products of looting a hundred years ago would have made Cultures in Crossfire potentially radical.

Put in perspective, Cultures in Crossfire is a small exhibition. It takes up just one room in a large, encyclopedic museum. The room, however, makes a tremendous impact on how we experience the rest of the museum and how we negotiate heritage outside of the museum walls. Cultures in Crossfire looks to the distant past through the recent past reflected in the Museum's historical collections. Its greatest ambition, however, is to comment on the present and awaken museum-goers, students, and the public to innovative strategies of safeguarding the past. The provocative inclusion of contemporary artist Issam Kourbaj opens up the space of the museum and makes visceral the experience of material culture. Through this risky inclusion of blatant subjectivity, we are given a vehicle to organize our objective responses. Cultures in Crossfire challenges us to join PennCHC and take action inside and outside the safety of the museum walls as we responsible reflect over shared global heritage in a suffering region far away from home.

Notes

Notes
1.
On the colonialist, nationalist, and imperialist paradigms, see Bruce G. Trigger, “Alternative Archaeologies: Nationalist, Colonialist, Imperialist,” Man 19 (1984): 355–370.
2.
On the destruction by ISIS intended for our spectacle, see Ömür Harmanşah, “ISIS, Heritage, and the Spectacles of Destruction in the Global Media,” Near Eastern Archaeology 78:3 (September 2015), Special Issue: The Cultural Heritage Crisis in the Middle East: 170–177.
3.
Eternal Sites: From Bamiyan to Palmyra, Grand Palais, Paris, 14 December 2016–9 January 9, 2017.
4.
Triumphal Arch of Palmyra, Trafalgar Square, London, 19 April 2016; City Hall, New York, 19 September 2016.
5.
Syria: A Living History, Aga Khan Museum, Toronto, Canada, 15 October 2016–26 March 2017.
6.
Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan, Sackler, Washington, D.C., 5 March 2016–29 October, 2017.
7.
A Country Called Syria, UC Berkeley Libraries, Berkeley, 12 May–21 August, 2017.
8.
Ai Weiwei, 66th Berlinale International Film Festival, Berlin, 13 February 2016; Cycladic Museum, Athens, 20 May 2016–30 October 2016.
9.
Doctors without Borders, Forced from Home, New York, Washington, Boston, Philadelphia, 16 September 2016–10 November 2016; Boulder, Salt Lake City, Seattle, Portland, Oakland, Santa Monica, 16 September 2017–10 November 2017
10.
Gideon Mendel, Dzhangal (London: Gost Books, 2017)
11.
Jim Lommasson, What We Carried: Fragments from the Cradle of Civilization (Portland, OR: Blue Sky Books, 2016); Arab American National Museum, Dearborn, MI, 4 June–23 October, 2016.
12.
The Journal of Contemporary Archaeology 31:2 (2016), special issue on Archaeologies of Forced and Undocumented Migration, ed. Yannis Hamilakis.
13.
After all, it is at the Penn Museum, that anthropologist Igor Kopytoff developed this concept, I. Kopytoff, “The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process,” in The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, ed. A. Appadurai (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 54–94.
14.
Hal Foster, Bad New Days: Art, Criticism, Emergency (London: Verso, 2015), 60.
15.
Christine Kondoleon ed. Antioch: The Lost Ancient City (Princeton and Worcester: Princeton University Press and Worcester Art Museum 2000).
16.
Peter Brown, “Charmed Lives,” The New York Review of Books 48:6 (April 12, 2001).
17.
Michael Danti, “Palmyrene Funerary Sculptures at Penn,” Expedition 43:3 (Nov. 2001), 33–40.