The founding of the University of Pennsylvania Museum in the 1880s was part of the great wave of institution-building that took place in the United States after the American Civil War. The new wealth created after the Civil War gave incentive to philanthropy as a means of earning social recognition, and many wealthy and civic minded Americans thus turned their attention to cultural life and institutions.
Philadelphia was at the centre of the industrial and cultural ethos of the times. It was known for its manufacturing, railroads, and commerce, but also for its institutions of learning, such as the American Philosophical Society, the Academy of Natural Sciences, and the University of Pennsylvania. The latter, though founded in the middle of the 18th century, was undergoing a renaissance under Provost William Pepper, a physician and medical professor, and under his leadership, the institution was transformed into a modern university. When, in 1887, he was approached to help send an archaeological expedition to Mesopotamia, he leapt at the prospect.
A group of prominent Philadelphia men promised to fund the fieldwork, and the University resolved that ‘all finds which can be exported are to … become the property of the University of Pennsylvania, provided the said University furnish suitable accommodations for the same in a fire-proof building…’
The expedition to Nippur in 1889 set a precedent for the growth of the Museum’s collections. Though the Museum was always eager to obtain objects by donation or purchase, a distinguishing factor between it and many other museums is that so many of its collections were acquired through fieldwork and are well-documented. Field research has always been important at the Museum, even when the major goal of an expedition was to bring back artefacts.
The curators and board members were constantly seeking out new collections. In its first two decades, while continually struggling to pay its bills, the Museum brought in more objects than it could properly catalogue. Plans for a museum building began soon after, in 1892, at the behest of Sara Yorke Stevenson, who became the first curator of the Egyptian and Mediterranean sections, and one of the first of the many formidable ladies in the history of the Museum.
A grand structure was envisioned, to be built in sections as money became available, consisting of three domes and a series of courtyards in front and back. The first section opened in 1899. Built mainly of brick, the architecture of the building is nominally Northern Italian Renaissance, blended with eclectic elements to create a unique style. It is embellished with decorative motifs, including glass mosaics under the eaves designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany (son of the founder of the famous Tiffany Store beloved of Holly Golightly) and Alexander Stirling Calder, father of Alexander Calder, the inventor of the mobile sculpture. Additions to the building were erected in 1915, 1926, and 1929, including the famous Harrison Rotunda and Auditorium, which boasts the largest unsupported masonry floor-dome in the world.
Under its Director, George Byron (1910-1927), research was conducted all over the globe, from Siberia to the Amazon, at major sites in Egypt and Guatemala. But the most acclaimed Museum project of the time was the excavation at Ur, in Iraq. This was a joint expedition with the British Museum led by the great archaeologist Leonard Woolley, and it produced spectacular jewellery from the ‘Royal Tombs’ (2650–2550 BC). Only the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun received more acclaim at the time.
This is a condensed version of a much longer article. To read further about the fascinating history of the Penn Museum go to Issue 30 of Current World Archaeology.