COUNCIL State of the University

caption: Rendering of planned reinstallation of Merenptah’s palace in the new Egyptian galleries at the Penn Museum.

At the March 28 University Council Meeting, the Provost’s portion of the State of the University Report on Plans for the Next Academic Year was given. He introduced Museum Director Julian Siggers and Deputy Director Stephen Tinney to present on Building Transformation at the Penn Museum. The President’s portion, which pertains to the University Budget will be given at the next meeting of Council on April 12, 2018.

Building Transformation at the Penn Museum

Julian Siggers:

The Penn Museum faces not only campus, but Philadelphia as well. As many of you here know, at heart we’re a teaching and a research museum, but we are also a museum that takes its public engagement seriously. It’s a collection of around a million objects gathered from research projects, around 400 sites over the last 130 years. Starting with our excavation in Nippur, which is now in southern Iraq, Penn brought 15,000 tablets back to the campus and created the museum. We continue to work all over the world with some of the most famous and noteworthy excavations of any museum.

Then there was the world-famous site of Ur, also now in southern Iraq, which we excavated with the British Museum. The magnificent bull-headed lyre will shortly be displayed in its full magnificence in our new Middle East Galleries. We have also worked in Egypt, Asia, Europe and all over the Americas.

We also spent a great deal of time working in Israel. The site at Beth Shean is probably one of the largest excavations undertaken anywhere by the Museum. Penn quite audaciously cut right through it—a large slice through this cake—and there were Bronze Age artifacts at the bottom, and there were Iron Age artifacts after that. It was an Egyptian fort, and eventually a Hellenistic town and a Roman town and finally a Byzantine town on the very top.

As I mentioned, we excavated all over the Americas as well. One of our most famous sites is the site of Tikal, which was a temple complex in what is now Guatemala. This has been immortalized by one of the Star Wars movies, where it was a Rebel base.

That’s about the past and what really excites me about the museum is the work that we’re doing now and the work that we’re going to be doing in the future. We continue to excavate, for example, at the site of Gordion, which is the Phrygian capital in central Turkey. Last year, we supported more than 20 field projects, providing enormous opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students as well.

Our public-facing aspect is one that is of enormous importance to our museum. And this is something that the new renovations are going to catapult into a whole new realm. The museum as we see it is an act of generosity from Penn to the city and beyond. A good example of this is our K-12 program. We reach around 60,000 K-12 students a year. Some of it we do virtually through broadcast classrooms, some of it we do by visiting them in the schools, but much of it we do by bringing school students to the museum itself. One of the ones we’re most proud of is the Unpacking the Past program. This is a program we do in conjunction with the School District of Philadelphia. It’s a multi-prong program in which we go into the schools to help teachers teach from objects—one of our specialties—and then bring the students into the Museum. We provide the transportation and everything else, including a family membership for each student, so there is no cost to the schools or the students. We’ve targeted grade 7 in particular because that’s when Ancient Civilizations is on the curriculum, so this is very much curriculum-based education. There are around 10,000 kids in grade 7 in Philadelphia. Last year, we got around 7,000. Our goal is to get every single  school kid in Philadelphia to come to the museum, to make them understand that museums are for them, that the sort of things we do are things that they could aspire to do, and of course that Penn is for them, as well.

I’m going to turn over to the academic mission of the museum, which of course is absolutely central to what we do. This is something Steve Tinney, our deputy director, has spearheaded over the last years with enormous success.

Stephen Tinney:

One of my core responsibilities as deputy director is to work on the engagement between the museum and the rest of the University community. Having been at Penn and in the Museum since 1991, that’s something that’s been very dear to my heart for many years. The entire mission of the academic engagement department is to make it as easy as possible for students and faculty to use the museum, primarily in curricular matters, so we have a lot of outreach. We have a director of academic engagement, Anne Tiballi, who cold-calls professors when she gets the course listing and says, “I see you’re teaching 17th Century Japan; did you know we have Samurai warrior armor?” By doing this, we get people to come in and look at the objects and do a lot of stuff with them, ranging from simply amplifying their understanding of the material to talking about materials and production processes, what kind of production chain it requires to create an artifact that they’re looking at, and also close inspection and aesthetic considerations. We even have people coming from the medical school to improve their diagnostic skills by doing close reading of objects because it’s something that develops a transferable skill in that area. We work primarily with SAS but also across the University with many of the schools.

We do object-based learning in several contexts. We now have two full-time collections study rooms, and a classroom we outfitted for large classes of up to 50-60 people, and we also do it in the galleries of course. Much of what the museum does is integrated throughout the gallery spaces and the educational and academic mission. We also do it in the context of another unit that is called the Center for the Analysis of Archeological Materials (CAAM). That was created as a result of a long investment in the refurbishment of our West Wing, which was the starting point to create new teaching lab spaces and conservation areas.

CAAM has a curriculum that takes undergraduates from the very first steps (we have a large core class) through intermediate classes, eventually to being full-fledged undergraduate student researchers. One of the important parts of CAAM is that we have a group of professional and faculty staff who are experts in archaeobotany, archaeozoology, human skeletal analysis, archaeometallurgy, ceramics and lithics, and all of those areas are available for work at a variety of levels, both for the undergraduate and graduate community. One of the interesting things about the museum is that we are both an academic center and we have a substantial professional staff, and that offers a great opportunity to have  them work with our educational mission. That’s one of the things we’ve done in CAAM—Julian particularly was very determined that conservation should be taught as part of CAAM’s repertoire. That’s something we teach now every couple of years. We have professionals in their respective fields, working with both undergraduates and graduate students, working with faculty, working with the objects. All of that works very nicely—it’s very synergistic.

Julian Siggers:

While we’re doing that, we of course develop and execute a very ambitious exhibitions program. One of the things being a University museum allows us to do is to focus on relevance and also to experiment. A good example of this is a show that’s still up now that looks at the work that we’re doing to combat the damage to cultural heritage in Syria. This is a show where we worked with our Center for Archeological Heritage Conservation along with a Syrian artist as well to look at the impact to cultural heritage that’s happening there at the moment. We also have a very ambitious public programs department, which put on a series of public classrooms focused on science and race. We did this in partnership with WHYY and used Penn faculty to set up four of these and had them broadcast and preserved online. So we can tackle topics that are of utmost relevance and importance for museums like ours to deal with.

So, we’ve looked at what we are doing now, but the future, the Building Transformation campaign, is something that’s enormously exciting for us. I thought I’d just take you through the three phases that are currently underway.

Building Transformation will renovate a really substantial part of the building—around three-quarters of it. At the same time, not only will we be able to reimagine our collections, but we’ll be able to do some really important stewardship tasks that have been left for quite a while-things like HVAC, which really limits our ability to be able to attract people in the summer and to display our collections in the way they really should be displayed.

The Harrison Auditorium will be completely renovated. We will also add two elevators, a new freight elevator and much needed renovated bathrooms. We will also open up the two areas in the front of the building­—the historic staircases that were there, so we are really changing the flow of the building. Through the Kamin entrance where the fishpond is are two staircases that will open up and we will basically open up the whole area—not only just renovating it, but letting the light in. It’s really going to transform how people experience this building. And finally, for this phase on the third floor, where we’re putting new washrooms in alongside the Egyptian galleries, that’s also where the lift comes out, and a new stairwell as well.

In total, it’s more than 44,000 square feet of space we’re renovating. It’s the biggest project this museum has ever done. Right now, 78% of the building is without air conditioning and with renovations, 77% of the building will be air conditioned. It’s going to really lift the bar for us all the way across. This phase started with a wonderful event in November and we didn’t so much have a groundbreaking as we had sort of a seat removing ceremony with Dr. Gutmann and Museum senior leadership (Almanac November 14, 2017). I’m thrilled to say that we are progressing really well. The first phase of this project is going to be completed in September of 2019—comparatively soon. There are a number of other things that will open with it. The first of these is actually opening in a couple of weeks’ time. It’s three galleries that look at the ancient Middle East. One of the wonderful things about working at Penn is the enormous intellectual capital that we have here. Working on this gallery, which was led by Steve, we had nine other curators who could all contribute to this gallery in their own unique way. I’m going to turn it over to Steve to tell you a little bit about the gallery.

Stephen Tinney:

We were very clear when we began this project that we wanted to create something that was amazing for the visitor-this was the goal. Something that people will come in and say “wow” every time they turn the corner. And so, as Julian said, although we did configure a team of 10 curators and experts, and we had, as you can imagine, some quite extensive conversations about how to tell the stories we can tell and what to put in and what to leave out, we were always driven by the idea, “what will the visitor get most out of?”

What we came up with was a collection of approaches that were complimentary. One is that it was clear to us that we had to tell the stories very much through the objects—to bring the objects alive, to put them back in the hands of the people who used them and the places they were found to the extent possible. We’ve really focused on that. We have so many excavations that we were able to combine that with an approach that is both chronological and based around individual sites. We were able to fashion a narrative that goes from about 7,000 or 8,000 BCE with very early agricultural villages and deals with cities and urbanization. The subtitle is “Journey to the City.” We go from villages to the first cities, then the central room is dedicated to the finds from Ur—the Royal Tombs of Ur. Then in the last room there will be a sort of accelerated journey from about 1800 BCE to about 1900 CE. So, you have to buckle up for that one. It’s fascinating because the way we’ve been able to tell the story is to be able to look at what is essentially a succession of empires overlaid on each other and making their own worlds bigger and bigger and as we head toward the globalized world where by the 18th century, by colonial Philadelphia, we have trading from China into Iran, where we excavated at Isfahan, one of the trade centers which sent Chinese Porcelain on to Europe and from there it was exported to Philadelphia.

We really start from very small inter-village networks to the globalized world and the gallery actually, the final new thing you see before you turn around and walk back through the galleries, is a wall that is dedicated to urban life today and urban life in the past without making it superficial. We’re not claiming that life is the same then as it is now but we are pointing out several things that are familiar, would have been familiar to us if we were dropped into an ancient city or vice versa, to get the visitor to think about that aspect of what they’ve seen and we hope reflect upon it as they return to the end of the gallery. This was an amazing experience in translation. As we said in one of our grant applications, actually, we took 10 experts at Penn, many of whom couldn’t fully understand each other because of their specialties, and we took the stories they wanted to tell and we worked with designers and interpreters to translate that material into a form that we hope a very broad audience can enjoy and benefit from.

Julian Siggers:

In addition to those artifacts, this gallery will contain some of the great artistic masterpieces of the ancient world. They will be displayed the way they should be.

This is the first of many galleries that will actually unfold in the coming years. When we open after phase one, we will also have a new gallery of Mexico and Central America. At the same time, we will be opening our new African galleries; the lead curator is our own Tukufu Zuberi. He is working in tandem with a team of five other specialists in African art and culture. This is a very important gallery for us and for our school visitsprogram so it’s also been designed with them in mind.

Next year, when you walk into the main entrance, the main staircase will be gone and you will see the original, side staircases leading down into the Harrison Auditorium. The Harrison Auditorium will be completely renovated. This, I think, is going to be one of the most remarkable venues on the campus. It also opens up a whole host of other partnership opportunities for events after business hours. I should also mention that this project is going on at the same time as the University’s hospital project. This has been an enormous opportunity for us because we’ve had a number of things that we could do jointly and save a great deal of money. They are actually providing for the whole landscaping outside the rotunda. I think that with this landscaping, with that new building, it’s going to really transform that part of campus. I think it’s going to have a completely different look and feel.

Phase one moves seamlessly, fundraising allowing, into phase two, which of course is the Egyptian galleries. This will involve 20,000 square feet of new Egyptian gallery space. And at the very center of this newly reimagined Egyptian gallery space will be the reconstruction of the Palace of Merenptah, who was Ramses II’s son, to its full height. It’s going to be one of the most magnificent spaces on the eastern seaboard—it’s certainly going to be one of the most dramatic ones. And also it’s a 100 year arc, because they always intended to do this in 1919 and the floors just couldn’t take the weight. So 100 years later, we’ve worked out a way to do it and we will.

I think by the end of all this, you will have a museum that you can be even more proud of than today’s.