New Penn Museum Exhibit Explores Impact Of War On Cultures In Syria, Iraq

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Recent chemical and bomb attacks in Syria are taking their toll on the people and the culture in the region.

The Penn Museum’s latest exhibition is part of an international attempt to ensure the heritage of Syrian people is not lost forever.

The exhibition, titled “Cultures in the Crossfire: Stories from Syria and Iraq,” includes 50 objects that tell the story of the rich cultural heritage, human diversity, and achievements of the war-torn region.

“It’s one thing to talk about the killing and death of people, which is absolutely outrageous and awful, but we are also talking about the effort to erase people and culture from the face of the earth,” says Richard Leventhal, who runs the Penn Cultural Heritage Center. The center has been working to train people on the ground in Syria, Iraq, and other areas of the world to go in and save artifacts to preserve their heritage.

“It’s dangerous work,” says Leventhal, who notes Penn experts are not allowed inside the countries. “But it’s about the people in those communities deciding what is important to save.”

img 5737 New Penn Museum Exhibit Explores Impact Of War On Cultures In Syria, Iraq

Issam Kourbaj (credit: Cherri Gregg)

“The human tragedy is far too much,” says Issam Kourbaj, the artist whose contemporary artwork is juxtaposed with the artifacts in the exhibition. He says his job was to explore the impact of the destruction and forced migration on the people and the culture of Syria.

“What is destructed is destructed- our job is to determine how to stop the destruction from a cultural perspective,” he says.

Kourbaj says his brother and other family still reside in Syria, although not in the area where there is severe damage. He says the trauma and fear still exists, just knowing what is happening in their homeland in recent days and years.

“The world is numb, and I feel emotionally dry from the silence of the world,” he says.

One of Kourbaj’s pieces is titled, “Tombstones.” It takes clothing found on the bodies of dead children in Syria and hardens them to create headstones, with details on those lost.

“You look at the images and you think they are asleep but they are dead,” he says, “you imagine what it must be like for the mothers and fathers to see their children like this.”

Cultures in the Crossfire opens April 8th.

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