China thwarts 'Silk Road' exhibition in Philly -- and Bowers Museum could be out $27,500
The apparent and unexplained short-circuiting of a Philadelphia museum’s exhibition built around ancient mummies from northern China could have a boomerang effect on the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, which figures to lose $27,500 if the show can’t be saved between now and its scheduled Saturday opening.
“Secrets of the Silk Road: Mystery Mummies of China” had its first United States stop in a four-month run at the Bowers ending last July, then ran, again without incident, at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.
But on Wednesday, the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology issued a statement saying that Chinese officials had asked that none of the artifacts from China be shown. No explanation was given, and the Associated Press reported that a museum spokeswoman wouldn't comment beyond what was in the statement. The Penn Museum's website was inaccessible Wednesday, except for a message that "the site is currently under maintenance."
Reached in Tucson, where he was attending the annual Gem and Mineral Show, Peter Keller, the Bowers Museum’s executive director, said he didn’t know what had happened: “We wish we all did.”
The Bowers has made a name with repeated successes in securing high-profile exhibitions from the People’s Republic of China, including “Secret World of the Forbidden City: Splendors From China’s Imperial Palace” (2000) and the 2008 blockbuster “Terra Cotta Warriors: Guardians of China’s First Emperor.”
However, the statement issued by the Penn Museum included refund information for advance ticket holders; plans call for the remnants of the show to open as planned, sans extra admission charge. What’s left includes multimedia and interactive elements of the show and a re-creation of the mummies’ dig site -– but no artifacts from China.
If the exhibition does not take place, Keller said, the Bowers, where 50,000 people saw "Silk Road," and the Houston museum will have to pay $82,500 each to cover the exhibition's travel costs, rather than $55,000 in a three-way split with the Penn Museum. He said he’s more concerned about the impact on the Penn Museum, a leading archaelogical institution, “because they’ve invested a huge amount in this.”
Keller said Chinese political sensitivities had come into play in painstaking negotiations to secure past exhibitions -- notably, “Tibet: Treasures From the Roof of the World,” in 2003-04. Midway through its run, about 70 protesters gathered outside the Bowers to complain that the show failed to address the fraught history of Chinese domination of Tibet since the 1950s, including its crushing of a 1959 uprising and ban of the Dalai Lama, Tibetan Buddhism’s spiritual leader. The Bowers at the time had said that the exhibition’s aim was to explore Tibet's art history, not contemporary politics.
Keller said that the negotiations to acquire the Tibetan treasures show were difficult because it “was politically charged for obvious reasons,” and that Bowers officials made 12 trips to Tibet as part of the eventually successful bid to secure the artifacts.
While there have been no reported protests, the “Silk Road” show, like many aspects of Chinese history and culture, does come with political baggage. The two mummies and accompanying artifacts displayed at the Bowers and in Houston were dug from the Taklimakan Desert in the Xinjiang region, where there is ethnic tension between the indigenous Uighurs and Han Chinese newcomers whom they view as usurping their economic standing and undermining Uighur culture. In 2009, race rioting broke out, and Chinese authorities said nearly 200 people were killed as Uighurs targeted the Han, who are China’s predominant ethnic group.
The mummies in the show have Caucasian features -- like the Uighurs -- and they have become part of the larger ethnic argument, embraced by Uighurs as evidence of an ancient claim on the land. Chinese authorities were reluctant to allow Western researchers access to the mummies, until more recent DNA studies showed that their origins were European, but not Uighur.
On its website, the World Uyghur Congress, based in Munich, Germany, announced Tuesday that it will stage a demonstration in Munich on Saturday to commemorate the anniversary of what it says was a peaceful Uighur demonstration in 1997 that was suppressed by Chinese authorities, killing 100 and leading to more than 200 subsequent executions of Uighurs accused of fomenting unrest. The “Silk Road” show’s Philadelphia opening was to fall on the same day.
-- Mike Boehm
Photos: Mummy from the "Silk Road" exhibition; burial costume and mask (sans mummy) from the exhibition. Credits: Wang Da-Gang (top); Bowers Museum (costume).