Photo: select artifacts from the Uluburun shipwreck (center) and sarcophagus with lid (right) from the gallery
A Review of the Penn Museum’s New Eastern Mediterranean Gallery
By Evan Dash
The Penn Museum celebrated its grand opening of the Eastern Mediterranean Gallery on November 19. In the months leading up to the exhibit’s opening, I visited the museum weekly for my Mediterranean archaeology class, and there was clearly excitement in the air for the new installation. After taking two separate tours of the Eastern Mediterranean Gallery, I have concluded that the buzz surrounding the exhibit’s debut was more than justified. The Eastern Mediterranean Gallery is unlike any other exhibit at the Penn Museum.
To arrive at the Eastern Mediterranean Gallery, one has to cross through the Roman Gallery. The stark contrast between the two museum galleries is a microcosm of what makes the Eastern Mediterranean Gallery unique to the Penn Museum. Like the Roman Gallery, much of the exhibit’s displays are matter-of-fact: showcasing antiquities with succinct descriptions in monochrome settings. However, unlike other galleries at the Penn Museum, the star of the show at the new exhibit is not necessarily the artifacts but rather the message. No other exhibit provides a story of its region like the Eastern Mediterranean Gallery. While other exhibits present niche historical narratives about particular aspects of an area (i.e., The Middle East Gallery’s “Journey to the City” specifically talks about urbanization), the Eastern Mediterranean Gallery tells the story of many different facets of ancient life in the region. Through antiquities, inviting colors, and interactive displays, the Eastern Mediterranean Gallery provides a narrative of the area in what the museum calls the “Crossroads of Cultures.” Famously (or many would argue, infamously), Israel, the Palestinian territories, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Cyprus have been linked to eras of historical conflict and power struggles, but as the Eastern Mediterranean Gallery makes clear, the region offers much more than ongoing war and political friction.
One focal point of the “Crossroads of Cultures” narrative is that historically, the Eastern Mediterranean has been an innovator in creativity and change. Color-coded in orange, the gallery begins one’s journey through the “creativity and change” portion of the exhibit by describing what is to come in this section: “Life in the region changed as people combined their knowledge and traditions. Merchants and empires spread a new form of writing, and communities developed new religious beliefs and practices. These creative shifts continue to impact many of us today.” Combining artifacts with anecdotal descriptions, this part of the gallery takes one through the two most important contributions of the Eastern Mediterranean to the modern world: religion and the alphabet. Regarding religion, the gallery displays artifacts spanning the Abrahamic religions all the way to antiquities found in the Sanctuary of Apollo and the city of Canaan. Connecting religion to the theme of “Crossroads of Cultures,” this part of the gallery explains that because of cultural interaction in the area, many beliefs and rituals were exchanged between religions and, in some cases, created completely new religions! The gallery illuminates the religious importance of the Eastern Mediterranean to its visitors.
Through interactive displays and antiquities spanning multiple continents, the “creativity and change” part of the Eastern Mediterranean Gallery stresses how critical the region was to the development of the alphabet. While this portion of the gallery provides a series of artifacts behind glass, ranging from antiquities in Greek to tablets in Phoenician, the interactive aspect of the alphabet display is a visitor favorite. Visitors can touch several different ways people have written throughout history, from cuneiform tablets and styluses to manuscripts and pens. Additionally, through a touchscreen application, visitors can watch short, interactive videos on the development of the English alphabet. The “creativity and change” section of the Eastern Mediterranean Gallery is a major success, creating an interactive narrative as visitors learn why this region of the world has historically been the “Crossroads of Cultures.”
Continuing with the theme of “Crossroads of Cultures,” the gallery also has a section dedicated to the “coexistence and connection” characteristic of the region. This part of the exhibit, color-coded in blue, focuses on trade and the exchange of traditions and ideas through migration. The theme of trade is impossible to ignore in the Eastern Mediterranean Gallery, largely because in the middle of the gallery sits a giant replica of a cargo ship hull that resembles those used in the Eastern Mediterranean over 3,000 years ago. This part of the exhibit covers the nuances of ancient sea trading, and the replica hull holds several ancient trade goods. Some antiquities on display here include raw materials (i.e., glass and copper ingots), personal treasures (i.e., seals, pendants, and beads), refillable jars, and ancient storage units (i.e., bowls and jugs). Through this display, visitors can see the goods ancient ships once carried and thus receive a better idea of historical Eastern Mediterranean trade.
The “coexistence and connection” portion of the gallery also explains how migration (for political, work-related, or other reasons) influenced ideas, traditions, and identities. From agricultural to technological to artistic impacts, this part of the exhibit shows how numerous ancient civilizations influenced other nearby cultures. This concept is explained brilliantly through one of the more impressive artifacts on display: a sarcophagus found in the Canaanite city of Beth Shean. This sarcophagus has cultural influences from both the Egyptians, who were in Canaan for military purposes, and the Canaanites themselves. While sarcophagi are obviously an Egyptian burial custom, the material and design of the sarcophagus are of Canaanite influence. Artifacts like these in the “coexistence and connection” section are yet another incredible way the Eastern Mediterranean Gallery adds to the region’s story as a “Crossroads of Cultures.”
As mentioned previously, the Eastern Mediterranean is widely known for having regional conflicts, and the gallery addresses this through its “power and conflict” portion. Color-coded in green, the “power and conflict” segment of the gallery makes it clear that regional conflict, while still prevalent today, dates back to over 4,000 years ago. Supported by artifacts from different time periods, as well as touchscreen representations of the conflicts in the region over time, visitors can understand the various campaigns fought in the Eastern Mediterranean. Staying with the theme of “Crossroads of Cultures,” the “power and conflict” section explains how the hostility in the region came from a lack of tolerance for different cultures in the area. Showcasing ancient tools of war (i.e., daggers, chariot decorations, axe heads) and artifacts from early regional powers (such as the Neo-Assyrian Empire, Neo-Babylonian Empire, and the Persian Empire), the gallery does a great job of describing the different conflicts that have historically marred the Eastern Mediterranean. Although I believe this part of the exhibit holds value in shaping the Eastern Mediterranean as a “Crossroads of Cultures,” the “power and conflict” portion is a tad underwhelming compared to the “creativity and change” and “coexistence and connection” displays.
Overall, the Eastern Mediterranean Gallery is a welcome addition to the Penn Museum. While the other Penn Museum galleries have their benefits (after all, many galleries have world-renowned artifacts such as the “Ram in the Thicket” and the “Sphinx of Ramses II”), the Eastern Mediterranean Gallery offers a nice change of pace. The Eastern Mediterranean Gallery’s combination of color, interactivity, and storyline has not been seen before at the museum. To me, this mixture allows the gallery to offer the best visitor experience at the Penn Museum. Understandably, some museum patrons come solely to see the famous artifacts stored at the Penn Museum, in which case, they might find the Eastern Mediterranean Gallery lacking. But for those seeking more than just the prominent artifacts, the Eastern Mediterranean Gallery and its “Crossroads of Cultures” narrative may be the best exhibit to visit at the Penn Museum.
Evan Dash (College ’24) is a student at the University of Pennsylvania studying Economics.