Ceci Dadisman recently tweeted a PRI piece about University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology hiring Iraqi and Syrian refugees to act as tour guides in their Middle East galleries. This is in part an effort to help draw connections between ancient civilizations and the cultures of those living in those same places today.
One of the guides talks about how he played soccer in the ruins of the ancient city of Ur and it wasn’t until he grew up that he gained a sense of the enormity of the history that occurred beneath his feet.
The museum’s education director said the guides provide knowledge and context that he and other staff simply couldn’t provide.
“At some point in almost every tour somebody will say, ‘What about today? Do they still eat these things today?’ Or, ‘Is this place still a place people go?’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t know. I can’t answer your question.'”
The guides can also engage in more nuanced conversation on issues of theft of antiquities by colonial occupiers versus the intentional and collateral destruction of historic sites by conflicts throughout the Middle East
When I see stories like this, I am reminded of the museum scene at the start of the Black Panther movie and wonder if efforts like this are coincidence, intentional, or subtly influenced by the movie and similar discussions about acquisition and ownership of cultural artifacts.
Earlier this month Non Profit Quarterly wrote about how the Metropolitan Museum of Art had placed Native American art in its American wing. In the past Native American art exhibits had been placed in African, Oceania or Americas wings. NPQ says it was only due to the insistence of a donor that the art was placed in the wing of its country of origin.
“That is hard to hear—that it was the requirement of a donor that enabled a long-overdue shift away from a colonialist positioning so exclusionary that Native Americans were relegated more easily to galleries devoted primarily to other nations.”
These stories may give rise to some conflicted feelings as we struggle with long held practices. But these stories are also part of a growing recognition that for some there is value in perspectives that aren’t necessarily informed by highly educated study of topics. For example, not long ago I wrote about Jawnty tours at the Barnes Collection in Philadelphia which were being led by a range of community leaders, comic book store owners and artists.
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