"Silk Road" show to open without its key content

Posted: February 03, 2011

The scheduled opening of the "Secrets of the Silk Road" exhibition at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology will go on as planned Saturday, though the stars of the exhibition won't be on display.

At least for now.

The museum announced Wednesday that the highly anticipated show - its first with advance ticket sales - "has been modified, and will open without artifacts and mummies from China, at the request of Chinese officials," according to a news release.

Officials at the museum, and at museums in Santa Ana, Calif., and Houston that are also hosting the exhibition, would not give details about what the problem is, which led to speculation about whether there was a dispute between the museums and Chinese government officials. Philadelphia was to be the only East Coast stop for the show.

"It's more on the order of a bureaucratic snafu - somebody neglected to sign and stamp/seal a piece of paper," Victor Mair, a University of Pennsylvania professor of Chinese language and literature, said in an e-mail. Mair is the catalog editor for "Secrets of the Silk Road" and a curatorial consultant.

In an interview, he said negotiations were taking place with high-level Chinese officials to allow the crates of artifacts, which have been at the Penn museum for several weeks, to be placed in the displays. But the talks came to a standstill temporarily because of Thursday's Chinese New Year holiday.

If the problem is resolved, Mair said, the artifacts can be installed in three days in the special display cases and spaces the museum spent $2 million to build. If it is not, the artifact-free exhibit could inflict a toll on the museum, which in recent years has had to lay off much of the staff in its research division.

The ancient Silk Road was a vast network of trading routes across Asia, linking China and the West and used by everyone in between, in varying degrees, for millennia, beyond its traversing by such notables as Marco Polo.

The Silk Road artifacts in question, which come from a museum and an archaeology institute in China, include two mummies, the burial trappings of a third, textiles, wooden objects, and statues. The 120 items are between 700 and 3,800 years old. The mummies in particular are celebrities in the eyes of archaeologists; though found in different burial sites, from different time periods, both have Caucasoid features.

Meryl Levitz, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corp., said Wednesday night that she knew only that the museum had asked the agency to put a temporary halt on advertising a hotel package that incorporated the exhibit.

"It seems like such an alluring exhibit," Levitz said. "Obviously, we're going to work with them as this develops."

Even without the artifacts, the museum will hold a weekend-long opening celebration that will feature camels, art activities, musical and dance performances, storytelling, and a tented "Silk Road oasis" with modern counterparts of goods that were ferried along the famous trading route.

The exhibition will continue through June 5, according to a museum spokeswoman, with photos of the artifacts and the texts, images, audio, and maps that were created to accompany the Chinese items, along with a mock-up of an excavation site.

Instead of requiring separate tickets for "Secrets of the Silk Road," the museum will offer free admission to the exhibition with a regular museum admission, which is $10 for adults, $7 for seniors, and $6 for children 6 to 17 and fulltime students. Children under 6 are free.

Purchasers of advance tickets - several thousand have been sold - should call 215-746-4174.

Contact staff writer Carolyn Davis at 215-854-4214 or cdavis@phillynews.com.

Karyn D. Collins contributed to this article.

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