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Ben on BenchPenn Museum
International Research Conference Program:
An Open Invitation to
Penn’s Academic Community

Richard M. Leventhal
The Williams Director
University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology has always been associated with a great University with world class experts in a wide variety of fields—scholars and researchers who have used the Museum’s many resources, and shared their own knowledge and perspectives with the Museum’s diverse scholarly and public audiences.

As Penn Museum begins a new initiative this spring, we invite the rich and diverse academic community at Penn to join us.   Backed by a generous, two-year seed grant, we begin the Penn Museum International Research Conference Program, designed to offer leading scholars at Penn and throughout the world opportunities to come together to share ideas, explore the perspectives and intersections of multiple disciplines, and grapple with complex issues about human cultures and societies. The International Research Conference Program will be intellectually creative, challenging, and rigorous—with the goal to create new avenues of understanding, and to publish newly emerged knowledge through web and print media.

A little background: for more than a century, a core mission of Penn Museum has been to foster research that leads to new understanding about human culture. For much of the 20th century, this research took the form of expeditions, more than 400 of them, to all parts of the globe. Scholars brought back both data and artifacts which, through ongoing analysis, continue to help shed light on early, recent, and contemporary societies—on what it means to be human.

Penn Museum seeks to reinvigorate its commitment to research focused on questions about human societies. To generate new knowledge and frameworks for understanding, today’s best research requires more than data and collections. More than ever, it depends on collaboration among communities of scholars investigating shared problems using distinct lines of evidence or different modes of analysis. Recognizing the importance of collaborative and multidisciplinary endeavors in the social sciences, Penn Museum has launched the International Research Conference Program.

How the program will work: each of these conferences will bring together ten to fifteen scholars who have reached a critical stage in their consideration of a shared problem. Through intense face-to-face deliberations in a setting detached from the daily demands of their professional lives, they will have a rare opportunity to reach a more integrated and nuanced understanding of their endeavors.

The Sphinx and Pyramid at Giza, Egypt, representative of the big questions that the International Research Conference Program seeks to explore: issues that might encompass politics and power, architecture and environment, aesthetics, religion, time, and cultural change. 
Sphinx Pyramid

The conference structure will be driven by papers circulated among participants at least a month in advance of the conference.  These will be the starting point for the discussions held in closed sessions. Initial discussions will be followed by a consideration of cross-cutting issues and will conclude with an overarching synthesis of ideas. The conferences will be held at Penn at comfortable sites with meeting rooms and dining spaces that are conducive to  lively interaction. Every effort will be made to create an atmosphere in which participants can meet without interruption or distraction.  Penn Museum will provide coach airfare, lodging, and all meals in addition to covering all of the administrative costs. 

Following the conference the ideas and thinking will be disseminated through three different media.  Immediately after the conference, Penn Museum will host a lecture or forum at which one or several of the participants will speak to the interested community and wider public about the ideas discussed at the gathering.  Then a website—accessed through Penn Museum’s home page—will facilitate the dissemination of the ideas and thinking to both the general public and interested professional communities.  Finally, and most importantly, the participants will rewrite their papers, taking into account the ideas generated and shared during the conference.  This group of papers, edited and introduced by the conference organizer, will be submitted to Penn Museum Publications for peer review and publication in a timely manner.

The goal of this collaborative effort is no less than the generation of new knowledge and understanding: interaction within the conference setting is expected to move the study of human culture and societies forward. We are working for new insights into the nature of human evolution, human behavior, culture, and society—fresh understanding of the past as well as of contemporary issues.  Possible topics of inquiry include the rise of complex cultures, the collapse of ancient and modern societies, the nature of political power, the impact of the changing environment on human societies, the development of writing and other communication systems and communication within and between communities.  Topics already under consideration include: “Landscapes of Movement: Trails, Paths, and Roads”; “Comparative Diplomatics: Historical and Cultural Implications”; “Evolution of Mind”; and “Forces of Nature: Environmental Risk and Resilience as Factors of Cultural Change.” Proposals on topics relevant to the study of humans and human societies, drawing on a variety of Penn departments and schools, are welcome.

We are excited about the possibilities for new knowledge of the human condition generated through our International Research Conference Program.  I invite all in our wider community to submit inquiries or proposals to Professor Holly Pittman, Deputy Director for Academic Programs (hpittman@sas.upenn.edu), who will coordinate the conferences through my office. We hope that this initiative will attract the interest of Penn scholars who seek an innovative structure to support their study of humans and human societies, across time and space, and that it will move us all toward a new era of integrated thinking in the human sciences.




  Almanac, Vol. 52, No. 29, April 11, 2006


April 11, 2006
Volume 52 Number 29


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