Speaking Out: Penn's Museum Revisited

It was a Tuesday morning in mid-July. I had just completed business at the University Hospital and was leaving by way of its imposing new 34th Street Portal. As I headed north, my hat-band and shirt-collar told me the temperature was in the low 90's and climbing. My office in the Franklin Building at 36th and Walnut seemed many hot miles away. Any excuse to postpone the inevitable unshaded journey deserved serious consideration. Waiting for the traffic light at Spruce Street to change, I considered the options.

Looking east across 34th Street, I observed Penn's Museum. It appeared to be beckoning to me, offering a promise of relief and some long-deferred enlightenment. It had been years since my interior design services required that I visit the museum, so I could hardly be considered a total stranger.

My next move was prompted in large part by the soaring temperature and, to a lesser degree, by procrastinator's guilt. I crossed 34th Street to the museum, climbed the steps, went through the imposing wrought-iron gates, and entered the courtyard. Passing the lily pond on the way to the building's entrance, I was struck by the sparse(ity) of lilies and the anemic upper thrust of the single-spout fountain. The massive oak main-entrance doors, however, provided a more fitting introduction to the museum. I passed through the doors bringing the heat and humidity with me. Just inside, I was greeted by a receptionist who informed me that the admission policy required either a University I.D. card, or a modest admission fee. I satisfied the lady of my legitimacy and was waved on in.

Immediately past the reception station I found a sort of mini-lounge where one may sit down and watch a brief video presentation: its purpose, to inform first-time visitors of the museum's mission and its contents. I found it to be most helpful and heartily recommend that newcomers (and previous visitors as well) avail themselves of this opportunity to learn of the many remarkable exhibits being offered.

That done, and because of my time constraints with the work day still ahead, I was forced to plan the next move. I soon realized that the comfort level inside was not much different from the out-of-doors I had hoped to escape. Perhaps some breakdown in the museum's climate control, I presumed. A few floor-mounted wind machines, strategically placed, were making a futile effort to remedy the situation. Not daunted, I pushed on.

Where to direct my footsteps with the limited time permitted? My decision was not a difficult one. It called for a short walk past the Ruth and Earl Scott Gallery, where the arts, crafts and the habitat of Southwest Indian Tribes are exhibited, to where the Mayan Era exhibit is located.

Why settle on the Mayan Era, you might ask. To recapture memories of time spent during visits to Mexico. I had always considered those travel experiences the most exotic and rewarding of my life. To see the museum's collection of artifacts, the stella, the excavation photographs, the Mayan handicraft, took me back to another time and place. I could almost feel the red ant bites suffered after climbing, step by step, to the top of Teotihuacan's pyramid, and sitting down to rest.

Whether touring the actual excavation sites or merely observing the museum's Mayan Era exhibit, it can be a humbling experience to reflect on the advanced cultural level achieved by these ancient people we think of as primitive.

But time was running out for me that Tuesday morning and there was so much more to see. I had only scratched the surface of what promised to be a fascinating Archaeological Odyssey.

Will it take another heat wave to give me cause to resume the Odyssey? We shall see.

Maurice S. Burrison
Director, Faculty Club Art Gallery

Speaking Out welcomes reader contributions. Short timely letters on University issues can be accepted Thursday noon for the following Tuesday's issue, subject to right-of-reply guidelines. Advance notice of intention to submit is appreciated.Ed.

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