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Student Curators Explore Ancient Cypriot Site, Develop Exhibition for Penn’s Year of Discovery

For Penn’s 2015-2016 Year of Discovery, three Penn undergraduate curatorial interns have been exploring the Penn Museum’s excavations at the site of Kourion on the island of Cyprus, where Museum archaeologists worked from 1934-1954. While doing the research to create a small exhibition, the three interns—Andrés De los Rios, a junior majoring in History and Classical Studies, Diane Panepresso, a senior majoring in Classical Studies, and Ashley Terry, also a senior, majoring in Anthropology—decided to delve a little deeper, making a few of their own discoveries along the way.

Kourion at the Crossroads: Exploring Ancient Cyprus, on display in the student gallery space adjacent to the Pepper Mill Café, runs March 26, 2016 through March 5, 2017. The two-case exhibition of several dozen objects, archival film footage, maps and field photos draws upon the Museum’s collection of about 2,000 artifacts from the various sites at Kourion, which was occupied for more than 5,000 years, from the Neolithic Period through Roman times. Information drawn from archival field records, recent publications on the site, where international scholars have continued to work, and new research conducted in the Museum’s Center for the Analysis of Archaeological Materials, is included.

A New Program Invites Students to Take on Curator’s Role

Last year was the first year of the Penn Museum’s Student Exhibition Internship program, and students created the inaugural small exhibition, Corn: From Ancient Crop to Soda Pop, to tie in to the University of Pennsylvania’s Year of Health. Undergraduate students at Penn are invited to apply in the spring for one of three two-semester curatorial internships, complete with a modest stipend, that focus on the planning, content development, design, fabrication, and installation of an exhibition. The goal is to provide students from diverse disciplines with real experience in creating an exhibition in a large museum.

For the Year of Discovery, the Museum set the focus on its 20 year-long excavations at Kourion. In the fall, the curatorial interns began to develop concepts for the exhibition. Dr. Ann Brownlee, Associate Curator in the Mediterranean Section, introduced the students to the resources, materials, and personnel that they could draw upon for their project. Kate Quinn, Director of Exhibitions and Public Programs, exposed them to the process for creating exhibitions, and incorporated them into the larger exhibition team, who collaboratively developed exhibition themes and choose objects. Sarah Linn, Museum Research Liaison, and a graduate student in Penn’s Art and Archaeology of the Mediterranean World, worked with the students fall through spring, making sure that they had timely access to the archives, labs, and resources. Jess Bicknell, Interpretive Planning Manager, guided the students in considering the needs of the visitors to the exhibition. She worked closely with them to interpret the content, write labels, and edit archival film footage.

Teamwork and Weaving Together a Story

Exhibitions are collaborative institutional projects. Teamwork is one of the joys, and challenges, of the internship. Coming from diverse interests and scholarly perspectives, the students chose to divide up much of the curatorial work into individual research projects—but they knew, in the end, they had to come up with a cohesive and balanced story, and gain support from the rest of the exhibition team and Museum stakeholders for their ideas. Sometimes they would have to take a strong stand to argue why a particular object or focus was important, and sometimes they would have to acknowledge that a cherished artifact or storyline just didn’t make the cut.

Each curator had his or her favorite artifacts. Diane Panepresso held up a heavy stone male torso artifact, one of the largest pieces in the exhibition. “It is Cypro-Archaic, dating to approximately the early 6th Century BC. We particularly liked him for the daily life module of our exhibit because of the detail of his clothing. He is wearing at least two, possibly three layers. The pleated under-layer is called a chiton, there is also an obvious collar and short sleeves which may be part of an additional layer. Draped over the left shoulder is a himation, a cloak, with triangular fringe or trim. He is made of limestone and would have been painted. Unusual for this site, and larger than the typical votives we have in the collection, he would likely have been a freestanding votive gift. My research on this said that these types might stand in continuous worship in the place of the person who dedicated it. It was found below a cliff near the Sanctuary of Apollo at Kourion and brought in by a shepherd to our archaeologists—a fun fact, but too much of a tangent for our story.”

While Diane focused on the burial, and daily life modules, Andrés, with a strong interest in history and art history, focused on the exhibition’s interactions module: “I was very interested in the role Kourion played in the Mediterranean, because we can remember Cyprus as an island that has a very strategic location placing it in the nexus of trade. So my goal was to find this role of Kourion…to discern the role Kourion had as a very important trade center, through the sometimes most surprising objects.

“Even something like a container made for perfume in the shape of a hedgehog, which has an attractiveness to it, it can also show foreign influence, as research shows that it was actually produced in a Greek colony in what is now Egypt.”

For Ashley, looking at the material through an anthropological perspective, the daily life module was of chief interest. “I wanted to examine how the people of Kourion may have lived in each of the different sites in the time periods those sites were occupied.” A simple object like a grindstone, then, offered her an opportunity to connect with life long ago. What was it used for?

Making New Discoveries

Learning about the objects led to more questions, and the students were able to take some of those questions to the Museum’s Center for the Analysis of Archaeological Materials (CAAM), the year-old facility in the museum’s newly refurbished first floor, where experts in a growing variety of scientific techniques offer classes, and one-on-one mentoring, for Penn students at all levels.

Ancient objects offer clues to the past—and often suggest new questions. Ashley Terry wanted to know more about an ancient handstone. Teaching specialist and archaeobotanist Chantel White worked with Ashley and examined the stone under a high-resolution microscope, which revealed red coloring, likely hematite or cinnabar, that suggested the stone was probably used for preparing paints and pigments.

Since the curators knew that gold is not a native metal in Cyprus, Diane took some of the gold objects found in tombs down to CAAM to see if there would be anything to be discovered under a powerful microscope. Moritz Jansen, teaching specialist in archaeometallurgy, pointed out a PGE (platinum group element) inclusion on the surface of one of the gold earrings. Since mined gold does not contain such inclusions, the discovery indicated that the gold was sourced from a river.

“In the Late Bronze Age, gold is moving around the Mediterranean but we have no idea what the source is, whether it is from Egypt, or from farther north of Turkey, “ explained Sarah Linn, Research Liaison. “With no natural deposits on Cyprus, this helped us narrow down potential sources.”

Considering the Curator’s Role

Ashley has been involved in the Museum’s exhibition programs before, focusing on collections in the Americas; for her, the internships provided “exposure to the breadth of the types of work that the Penn Museum has done, and the ways that archaeology occurs in different parts of the world.”

Diane saw the experience as a “humanizing process” noting “we were able to meet, literally, the archaeologists through their own words, their own letters, their own recordings, and then discover new things about the items that they discovered back in the 30s through the 50s, with modern technology.”

An avid museum-goer, Andrés spoke of the shift in perspective from visitor to curator. “It helped me better appreciate the role of museums. It helped me better appreciate any exhibition I see from now on. Because of the sheer amount of work that now I have experienced, and I know what goes behind it.”

Photos Top, left to right: the three student curators of Kourion at the Crossroads: Ashley Terry holds a more than 3,000 year old bird-shaped clay vessel, an object selected for the exhibition; Diane Panepresso with Moritz Jansen, teaching specialist in archaeometallurgy, examine the surface of a gold earring from Kourion; Andrés De los Rios examines a faience hedgehog container from the ancient site.

Bottom: The student curators explore some of the Kourion records in the Museum Archives, with Sarah Linn, Museum Research Liaison (second from left). Photos: Penn Museum


Jill DiSanto, Public Relations Director