Penn Museum director declares its abbreviated exhibit of Chinese artifacts a success

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The Beauty of Xiaohe, a 3,800-year-old mummy from the Tarim Basin in far western China, was in the show China sought to block.

Despite a major diplomatic pratfall that caused artifacts to be spirited back to their homeland two months early, the Penn Museum's Secrets of the Silk Road exhibition managed to draw 42,807 visitors during the 39 days its Chinese materials were in residence.

The highly touted show, featuring two mummies and about 130 artifacts from remote desert regions of western China, was originally scheduled to open Feb. 5. But a few days before that, Chinese authorities told Penn that the show had not been approved for Philadelphia and that the artifacts had to be returned, still packed, to China.

After a week or so of negotiations, Chinese officials relented and agreed to an abbreviated exhibition schedule. The complete show opened Feb. 18 and on March 28, the last of the artifacts departed. Museum officials have now installed mummy mock-ups and photographs until June 5, the concluding date for the original run.

A museum spokeswoman said no financial information was available for the show, which had required an extra fee on top of regular museum admission of $10. A catalog edited by Victor Mair, a Penn professor of Chinese language and literature, and curatorial consultant on the exhibition, was sold out.

Despite all the headaches and dropped balls, Richard Hodges, the museum's director, considers the show a success.

"I can't understate what a success it was," he said. "It put us well and truly on the map in the university. The university is an enormous enterprise. Beginning as a small cog in that wheel, we've become a major cog in that wheel."

Even more significant, said Hodges, surveys of visitors to what had been billed as the museum's first-ever "blockbuster" exhibition, showed that 44 percent were entering the museum for the first time. Penn students came in droves, Hodges said, as did families.

"We're getting a really wide range of people," he said. "To what extent can you replicate the success?"

Cynical university wags have joked for several weeks that the whole Chinese intervention was a publicity stunt designed to gin up attendance. Hodges has heard that one. "How do you reproduce the disaster?" is one way of putting it, he said.

When the Chinese first blocked the exhibition, there was much talk in political circles that the action was somehow related to official sensitivity over the caucasoid features of the mummies or irritation at the ethnic Uighurs in Xinjiang who approved the traveling show.

Hodges said the real problem was that traveling exhibitions of fragile antiquities are allowed outside China for only one year. The Penn Museum was the third and last stop on the show's American tour, with most of the run falling outside the one-year time frame.

The Bowers Art Museum in Santa Ana, Calif., which organized the show, opened its leg of the tour March 27, 2010. The show then went to the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

Had the artifacts stayed for the entire Philadelphia run, they would have remained outside of China for nearly 15 months - a no-no to the Chinese. And not a newly imposed rule, either.

The Bowers negotiated directly with the Chinese, Hodges said. Peter Keller, director of the Bowers, did not respond to telephone inquiries.

"The Chinese wanted the exhibit out for a year because that's their normal rule, and basically the consortium [of museums] misunderstood that," Hodges said.

Even so, the truncated show drew about 50 percent more than the museum estimated in mid-February for the renegotiated run.

Before the diplomatic faux pas upended everything, museum officials originally estimated 60,000 to 100,000 visitors for Silk Road's full three-month artifact-chocked stay in the museum's renovated west wing galleries.

Nevertheless, Hodges acknowledged that the disruptive problem - at one point Penn grad Jon Huntsman, U.S. ambassador to China, intervened - showed that museum officials had a lot of learning to do to become a "top-table" institution.

"I should have been over in Beijing making myself known," he said. "All of us involved needed to work more closely with our Chinese colleagues and understand the Chinese bureaucratic system better. That's a learning curve."

The museum's next major show, an exploration of the Mayan antiquities of Honduras, is already under discussion with Honduran authorities, Hodges said, with close attention paid to bureaucratic details.


Contact culture writer Stephan Salisbury at 215-854-5594 or ssalisbury@phillynews.com.