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Archaeologists and curators Salam Al Kuntar and Brian Daniels talk about Penn Museum's new exhibit while installation is underway in the gallery. The exhibit, now open, uses artifacts, information and artwork to examine the cultural cost of war. Shannon Eblen/ Staff photographer

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As the United States launched missiles at Syria in retaliation for a chemical attack on its people days earlier, the Penn Museum prepared to open an exhibit about war's toll on the people and culture of Syria and Iraq.

“Cultures in the Crossfire: Stories from Syria and Iraq” looks at how ISIS has used the destruction of culture and heritage as a war tactic and at the archaeologists who are working to preserve that heritage while they still can.

Salam Al Kuntar, the lead curator for the exhibit and a Syrian archaeologist, is co-founder of the Safeguarding the Heritage of Syria and Iraq Project, run by the Museum’s Penn Cultural Heritage Center, the Smithsonian Institute and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The project began as emergency site preservation in the midst of conflict and has evolved to deal with the intellectual heritage lost as the Iraqi and Syrian people, including experts such as Al Kuntar, are displaced by the conflict.

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“It’s about trying, in many ways, to tell the story about what this project has tried to do in Syria and Iraq,” Al Kuntar said of the exhibit. “It also tries to really emphasize what’s at stake about culture and the history of the region and the identity of the people who live there today.”

Video footage of the project’s work is shown in the exhibit alongside some of the museum’s artifacts from the region and responsive art from Syrian-born artist Issam Kourbaj.

The artifacts are from the museum’s collection and are on display for the first time. This includes busts from Palmyra, a site co-curator Brian Daniels called “ubiquitous, at this point, in terms of the destruction.”

The UNESCO World Heritage Site was home to ancient ruins that were destroyed after ISIS seized control of the site in 2015. While the destruction at Palmyra made headline news, it isn’t the only cultural site that has been ravaged by war. And it is actually religious sites – of all religions – that experience outsized damage, Daniels said.

This kind of preservation isn’t something he and his colleagues studied. Working remotely with local groups to try and protect sites and artifacts is something they have had to learn on the fly.

“Inside Syria and Iraq, things are complicated,” he said.  “Being able to support these local heritage professionals was complicated on a good day and the way the conflict has evolved – when the geopolitical powers began using this as a proxy fight, this became much harder.”

ISIS sees propaganda value in this destruction, Daniels said. When the media stopped showing images of killings by ISIS, blowing up cultural sites the ensuing outcry became how the terrorist group would make the news.

That destruction draws a clear distinction between the people of the region and ISIS, something the exhibit highlights.

“There are so many public misconceptions about Islam, about the Middle East more broadly, and I think the museums have a very, very important role to play in trying to recast these narratives,” Daniels said. “The kind of network TV media don’t necessarily lend themselves to a complex or nuanced understanding of the Middle East, which is an incredibly complex and nuanced place. There’s actually some ability to do that in a museum setting.”

But in light of the other struggles in the region, including a massive refugee crisis, some might question a focus on the culture and heritage.

“So, you have these multiple things going on at the same time and what I often say is it’s important to think about these things as not either or,” Daniels said.

The perpetrators’ aim is to disrupt civilian life, he added. “One of the ways you do that is by destroying the heritage that matters most to that civilian population, that matters most to that community.”

The exhibit delves into the daily life of this population to humanize the subject.

“We focus on domestic context, in cuisines and household activities,” Al Kuntar said. “There will be children’s toys and kitchen stuff like frying pan and ladle and really beautiful tableware. Just to show that cultures in that more intimate sense.”

There are also tablets and manuscripts that reflect the region’s culture as a place of learning and of musical artifacts.

The idea was to create a visceral connection between the exhibit and the public, Daniels said, and show how museums can support the efforts of organizations like the Safeguarding the Heritage of Syria and Iraq Project.

“The fact that you have a war that is inflicting this array of human suffering and the destruction of art and heritage is one piece of this,” Daniels said.

“The exhibit sort of raises the question, how do you use objects, objects that are many times not seen, to narrate a story about human identity and human suffering and how museums respond to that situation specifically.”

Richard Leventhal, executive director, Penn Cultural Heritage Center, drew a parallel to Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, both important American heritage sites.

“If something were to happen here we would want these symbols to represent who we are in the future,” Leventhal said.

Similarly, if peace comes to Iraq and Syria, the hope is the people can rebuild upon their past.

“Heritage is very much tied into representation of identity,” Leventhal said. “We’re really talking now about Syria’s future.”

Shannon Eblen: (856) 486-2475; SEblen@gannettnj.com

IF YOU GO

“Cultures in the Crossfire: Stories from Syria and Iraq” is now open at the Penn Museum, located at 3260 South St. in Philadelphia. For more information, call (215) 898-4000 or visit penn.museum.

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