Iraqi and Syrian guides share glimpses of home in Philadelphia museum

Iraqi and Syrian guides are leading tours of the Penn Museum's Middle Eastern galleries. The cultural artifacts trigger memories from their birthplaces, which offers visitors a more authentic art experience. 

Jacqueline Larma/AP
Part of the Middle East gallery is displayed at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia on April 26, 2018. The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology is opening the galleries to showcase previously undisplayed items, and is making the artifacts more relatable by adding guides native to those parts of the world.

Three Iraqi natives and a Syrian woman 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 intersperse personal stories with historic content as they lead groups through the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology's new galleries that tell tales going back 10,000 years.

"People really have trouble understanding and connecting with objects from the ancient past," said Ellen M. Owens, Penn Museum's Merle-Smith director of learning programs. "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 school boy'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 Mr. Al-Karfawi, a former translator for the United States Army in Baghdad who settled in the United States with his wife and children last year.

"Today, as a father, I have the same argument with my kid. I never thought it was happening thousands of years ago."

In another part of the galleries, Moumena Saradar 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. Ms. 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.

"Because if he cheats her, everyone in the town would know," Saradar said, drawing laughter.

Rusty Baker, executive director of the non-profit 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 Americans guides.

"Museums have been looking at demographics and asking, 'Who is not here and how do we do something about that?'" Mr. 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, Ms. Owens said, as it opens two new galleries showcasing Mexico/Central America and Africa in the next year. The museum is working with two organizations that help new immigrants to find trainees.

Part of that training includes discussing provenance and how guides feel about seeing objects from their home countries on display in the US 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," Al-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 exhibit 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.

"I'm finding connections between your people and my people."

After taking Al-Karfawi's tour, Lalaine Little 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," said Ms. Little, director of the Pauly Friedman Art Gallery at Misericordia University. "This experience felt very authentic. Sometimes you go on these tours and there are somewhat canned responses [from guides], but his were very heartfelt. He's not repeating what he learned in training. He's talking about his heritage because he's very proud of it."

This story was reported by The Associated Press. 

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