New Eastern Mediterranean Gallery opens at the Penn Museum

The completely renovated gallery is the latest in the transformation and modernization of the building that dates to 1899.

half dozen people in a museum gallery
Featuring 400 objects that span a period of 4,000 years, the Penn Museum is opening a new Eastern Mediterranean Gallery, the latest step in its building transformation.

Featuring 400 objects that span a period of 4,000 years, half on display for the first time, the Penn Museum is opening its new Eastern Mediterranean Gallery: Crossroads of Cultures, the latest step in the multiyear transformation and modernization of the 123-year-old building. 

The artifacts from its collection, most discovered during University of Pennsylvania archeological expeditions from the 1920s to 1980s, are from the region that encompasses modern-day Cyprus, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, and Syria. 

The gallery will open to the public on Saturday, Nov. 19, with a number of events, including music and dance workshops, and a chance to view the Museum Archives and tour the Center for the Analysis of Archaeological Materials lab.

Penn Museum Williams Director Christopher Woods said at a preview Thursday that the new gallery is an important milestone in the Museum’s multi-phase renovation, which when completed will transform 44,000 square feet, or 75%, of the signature galleries and public spaces.

“The Museum’s transformation is about more than simply renovating physical space. It’s about creating a visitor experience that’s immersive and immediate, showing our visitors that issues of the past are still very much relevant to today’s world,” said Woods. 

Lauren Ristvet with display on alphabet
Lauren Ristvet, lead gallery curator, explains the display about the origins, evolution, and spread of the alphabet, invented in the region, that most languages use today.

The Eastern Mediterranean gallery showcases a region that has been “central to the human story” since antiquity, he said, a “cosmopolitan” ancient world. At the intersection of three continents—Asia, Europe, and Africa—it’s the birthplace of three major world religions–Judaism, Christianity, and Islam–as well as the alphabet and other major cultural innovations.

Yet today the region is “too often represented in a very limited way as a place identified solely with conflict, with very little nuance or depth,” Woods said. “Our gallery reaches beyond these stereotypes to uncover a much more complex historical narrative, one that that reveals this region to be the crossroads for ideas streaming from both east and west and a crucible for innovation.”

The 2,000-square-foot gallery, located on the Museum’s upper floor to the left of the grand staircase, was last designed in 1997. “It was really time to give it a refresh,” says Jessica Bicknell, the Museum’s head of exhibitions. “The gallery now meets our current standards for exhibition design, display, interpretation, and accessibility. This new expanded storyline that the curators came up with is much richer and allows us to put more items on display.”

The gallery was designed around the themes of coexistence and connection, power and conflict, and creativity and change, says Lauren Ristvet, lead curator of the new gallery. 

display in shape of ship
A re-creation of the cargo hold of a ship, complete with sail, holds items like those that archaeologists have found in shipwrecks. 

An innovative display re-creates a ship’s cargo hold, based on a vessel that capsized in the Mediterranean Sea more than 3,000 years ago. The items inside are like those found in actual shipwrecks, including ivory, glass, containers for perfumes and oils, gold, copper, bronze, Cypriot pottery, and Mesopotamian seals.

“We know about a lot of trade during this period, and we know about a few shipwrecks. At some point we decided that it would be fun to reconstruct part of a ship,” says Ristvet, associate professor of anthropology in the School of Arts & Sciences and the Robert H. Dyson Associate Curator in the Museum’s Near East Section. 

Throughout the gallery are items that range in size and age and purpose, including gems, jewelry, coins, tools, ceramics, figurines of gods, as well as architectural elements such as tops of stone columns, sections of ancient doorways, and portions of a mosaic tile floor. The oldest object dates to 2100 BCE and the most recent to 1800 CE.

Woods says that most of the artifacts in the new gallery were excavated by Penn archaeologists, many from the Beth Shean site in Israel in the 1920s and 1930s, which resulted in about 8,000 objects. The Museum has more than a million objects, with a very small percentage on display. “Whenever we can bring those objects out of the storerooms, that's always an exciting endeavor,” Woods says.

A gallery highlight is a rare sarcophagus made of red terracotta dating to 1200-1000 BCE, a practice specific to the region of Beth Shean, says Ristvet. The glass case behind it contains six faces from other sarcophagus lids made of the same type of clay, the first of their type discovered by archaeologists and among the only ones on display in North America. “I love them. I love that you can sort of get a sense of people,” Ristvet says. “I wanted to put in many more, and at a certain point I had to acknowledge that the case was only so big.”

six faces made of clay
Faces made of terracotta from sarcophagus lids, dating to 1200-1000 BCE, were discovered during a Penn excavation in Beth Shean, Israel. 

For Woods, the busts of townspeople in Beth Shean, and Palmyra, Syria, are some of his favorite objects. He says they were created in a traditional imperial style but with local details that contribute to the “humanity” of the sculptures, as well as the idea of cultural crossroads. Made of limestone and dating to 150-350 CE, they once were painted in vivid colors. An interactive display allows visitors to see how they might have originally looked, based on scientific analysis of traces of pigment. 

The gallery has interactive screens with timelines and maps, reproductions of items in the exhibition that can be touched, and even a station that allows visitors to smell the aroma of frankincense. A projection shows methods of layering and assemblage as archaeologists explore a site, as well as the uses and reuses of objects.

Also on hand are copies of documents that visitors may handle from the Museum Archives, including letters, telegraphs, and photographs related to Penn archeological excavations to help give historical and cultural context. “We wanted to acknowledge the people who were part of the excavations who were not normally acknowledged,” Ristvet says, “including the local workers who did a lot of the digging.” 

Joanna Smith and Lauren Ristvet go through documents in folders
Joanna S. Smith (left), co-curator of the gallery, holds a photo from a Penn Museum excavation team in the 1940s from the Museum Archives, a feature of the new gallery Ristvet (right) says is designed to put the expeditions in historical context. 

The Eastern Mediterranean Gallery curator team included three in addition to Ristvet: Joanna S. Smith, a consulting scholar in the Museum’s Mediterranean Section; Eric Hubbard, a Penn Ph.D. candidate in anthropology; and Virginia Herrmann, a consulting scholar in the Museum’s Near East Section. 

The co-curators began collaborative work on the gallery in earnest in January 2020, meeting only a few times before the pandemic closed the campus. During the next several months, only a handful of staff were permitted back into the Museum, including the registrar, the conservators, and the keepers of the collections. 

“The keepers would get the objects out, and then the registrar would have a study session for us on Zoom,” says Smith, also a former lecturer on history of art at Penn. “You could ask her questions, and she would rotate the object and take a measurement or whatever you needed. For a long time that was the only way to check details of some of the pieces.” 

Ristvet says the team was familiar with some of the objects that had previously been on display but not with many of the pieces they were considering, including those from Cyprus. Of the 400 artifacts now in the gallery, more than 200 had not been on display before, she says. “We had to choose almost all of the objects without being able to actually see them in person, which worked out amazingly well in most cases,” says Ristvet.

several figurines made of clay
Figurines from the Sanctuary of Apollo in Kourion, Cyprus.

The Eastern Mediterranean Gallery is the latest in an ongoing renovation of the Museum building, which dates to 1899. In November of 2019, the Museum revealed a major transformation of the main floor galleries, opening the new Main Entrance and Sphinx Gallery, as well as the new Africa Galleries, the new Mexico and Central America Gallery, and the refurbished Harrison Auditorium. In 2018, the Museum opened new Middle East Galleries. Combined with the Native American Voices gallery, all the exhibition space on the main floor has been updated, with air conditioning, new restrooms, and elevators. 

Next will be the massive transformation of the Ancient Egypt and Nubia Galleries, which will feature more than 3,000 items in more than 15,000 square feet on two floors, including a reconstructed pharaoh’s palace with 23-foot-high grand pillars. Meanwhile, a temporary exhibition of more than 200 objects, Ancient Egypt: From Discovery to Display, is next to the Eastern Mediterranean Gallery on the other side of the grand staircase.

“The Eastern Mediterranean Gallery is sort of a model going forward for the interconnectedness of the Museum. It’s also very contemporary. I really love the color palette, the liveliness of the displays. It just has a very modern feel to it,” Woods says. “There are a lot of lessons to be learned here, like when you look at the use of color and the way that the gallery is thematically divided. I think we will be able to apply the lessons learned in these smaller galleries to Ancient Egypt and Nubia.”