Penn Museum Exhibit Explores Magic in the Ancient World

Running through April, the new exhibit puts ancient magical artifacts on display from several ancient civilizations near the Mediterranean. It was produced in part by students.

Tutu - Penn Museum

A limestone plaque of Tutu, a sphinx-like protective god with a human head, lion body, and a snake for a tail. It has been dated between 30 BCE to 624 CE, and was found in Egypt. (Photo: Penn Museum)

The Penn Museum is going to be a little more magical for the next year.

On Friday, the Museum opened a new exhibit, Magic in the Ancient World, that displays magical objects from ancient civilizations of Rome, Greece, the Near East, Mesopotamia and Egypt.

The co-curators are Bob Ousterhout (an Art History professor) and Grant Frame (an associate professor of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations). They told Philadelphia magazine they wanted to get some of the museum’s items out of storage and on display; many of the items in storage are related to magic. An idea for an exhibition was born. “Magic is sort of an omnipresent idea in the ancient world,” Ousterhout says.

It was developed out of a curatorial seminar, Magic in the Museum, in the 2015 spring semester taught by professors Ousterhout and Frame. Ten students, both grad students and undergraduates, contributed to the selection of objects and the composition of explanatory texts in the booklet.

Magic jars

Canopic jars were used to store a mummy’s internal organs, which were removed to prevent decay. These, found in Egypt, are dated between 1539 and 1292 BCE. (Photo: Penn Museum)

The magic in the exhibition isn’t about card tricks or slight of hand. Instead, it features a variety of magical objects used by everyday people in ancient society: Necklaces for protection, protective wands to help a mother survive childbirth, incantation bowls that curse demons who try to enter a home and jars that preserved organs as preparation for the afterlife.

Magic foot

This foot, from the Etruscans, is dated to between 300 and 100 BCE. Anatomical votives were dedicated to Asklepios in thanks to the god for healing the body part represented, and to ensure good health in the future. (Photo: Penn Museum)

Frame explains that magic isn’t limited to just the ancient world: Things like horoscopes, fortune tellers, tarot card readers and the like are similar today. “Have you ever seen someone throw salt over their shoulder after spilling it?” Frame says. “That’s a belief in magic.” At the end of the exhibit, visitors can answer several questions at a kiosk to find out if they’re magically-inclined.

The exhibit runs until next April. On November 11th and 12th, the Museum will host a conference on divination practices in the ancient world. Friday will be a scholarly conference, while Saturday will feature public talks along with fortunetellers, tarot card readers, and other diviners.

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