On a Bridge to Ur, or Archives + Museums = WIN

Continuing to stretch the mileage I’ve gotten out of my 23 hours in Philadelphia last month, I’m extending the geek-out over the Penn Museum‘s “Iraq’s Ancient Past” gallery.

I previously mentioned fangirling in the Penn Museum’s “Iraq’s Ancient Past” gallery. My time wasn’t just spent fawning over Agatha Christie — I was completely smitted by the curators’ decision to utilize the Museum’s archives in developing the exhibition. Most museums acquire their collections via donations or curatorial shopping sprees. Some teaching institutions, like the Penn Museum, funded (or co-funded) their own expeditions to fill their shelves and cover their walls. That in-house provenance provides for a wealth of archival material. And when you’ve got this treasure trove just a floor away…

… why not use it?!

Correspondence detailing Ur expedition leadership, funding, fieldwork, and findings are exhibited alongside photographs and artifacts. Though the actual letters aren’t on display, the archival record is more accessible to gallery-goers than if they were. Images of these notes and letters are enlarged and hung at eye level on large panels. There is no need to hunch over a display case in dim lighting to squint at old onion skins.

Yes. THAT T.E. Lawrence.
Latin does have its uses, especially when you’re trying to tell your boss at Penn about an archaeological discovery and you don’t want your colleagues/rivals at the Oriental Institute knowing about it.

History is presented in all of its wrinkled, smudged, slightly foxed glory — and it’s beautiful, not to mention easy on the eyes and back.

In addition to letters and telegrams, facsimiles of newspaper articles (the ones above are on Queen Puabi and her death) are blown up, showing off the creases and crinkles of time. These “flaws” heighten the distance between then and now, increasing the sense of awe and respect I have for the longevity and survival for materials housed in archival collections.

I am happy to see the Penn Museum archive not only utilized in an exhibit, but utilized so prominently. Displaying archival records alongside archaeological artifacts elevates these materials in the eyes of patrons. These aren’t just dusty old papers. These are storytellers — a connection between the past and the present, a bridge between Philadelphia and Ur — and I am happy to have seen them in a well-lit, eye-level display. I hope to see more collaborations like this at other museums.

Archives + Museums = WIN

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