Penn exhibit hits big roadblock, thanks to China officials

Posted: February 03, 2011

Where does the Silk Road run? Not through Philly, apparently.

The highly touted exhibit at the University of Pennsylvania's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, featuring mummies and artifacts from China, will open as planned this weekend - only without the Chinese mummies and artifacts.

Chinese officials informed the museum that the "Secrets of the Silk Road" exhibition pieces could not be displayed in Philadelphia despite having been shown in California and Texas, said Darien Sutton, a museum public-relations coordinator. No explanation was provided.

That means the Penn Museum will be refunding thousands of advanced-ticket sales. Instead, admission to special Silk Road programming, which runs until June 5, will be free with regular museum admission.

The remaining offerings include a monthly lecture series, photos of the Chinese artifacts and a reconstructed excavation site within the 6,000-square-foot gallery space.

The Silk Road refers to the ancient trade routes that connected Europe and Asia. One of the exhibit's star features was to be a 3,800-year-old mummy known as Beauty of Xiaohe. The mummy, found in the desert sands of China's Tarim Basin, has long red hair and Caucasian features, indicating that Western populations migrated eastward at one point.

In an e-mail, Victor Mair, the Penn professor who edited the exhibition's catalog, said he could not comment further on the cancellation.

"We're still struggling with all our resources and at the highest levels in China and in the United States to save this exhibition," Mair wrote. "It's not over yet."

In a Jan. 21 interview with the Associated Press, Mair said the exhibit would be the "rebirth" of the highly respected museum.

"It's going to put it back on the map," he said then.

During the interview, museum officials interrupted Mair to tell him that the artifacts had arrived, the AP reported then. The Texas museum, the last to showcase the exhibits, closed its show early last month.

Attempts to reach the Chinese Embassy in Washington were unsucessful.

Cindy Wang, spokeswoman for the Greater Philadelphia Asian Culture Center, said her organization had planned to bring schoolchildren studying Chinese history to the exhibition.

"It's an important cultural time," she said. "It's definitely a miss for the city."

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