The next issue of Current Archaeology will be devoted to the work of one of the world’s great museums – the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia. The Penn Museum is one of the world’s greatest museums. Every year, expeditions are sent out round the world, and many of the great discoveries are made by this work. Current World Archaeology has been privileged to be given an inside look at some of this work, and in the next issue we will be reporting on some of their remarkable findings.
Penning the changes
The Penn Museum was founded on a grandiose scale in the 1880s, and already in the 1930s it was participating with the British Museum in the excavations at Ur under Sir Leonard Woolley, and consequently some of the treasures from Ur, including the famous Ram caught in a thicket, are in the Penn.
But its real glory days came soon after WW II, when under two great directors, Fro (short for Froelich) Rainey and then Jeremy Sabloff, they carried out far-flung expeditions. Martin Biddle also had a short period as director in between the two, and now another British Director has been installed, in the person of Richard Hodges, our regular CWA columnist. He suggested that we might like to do a special issue devoted to the Penn Museum and its works, so in March, I called in and see the Penn Museum for myself, and see Richard in his new environment.
Richard is currently rather busy. He remains director of the Butrint Foundation, running the excavations in Butrint, and helping to sort out the archaeology of Albania. The Foundation currently has a turnover of some £1m a year; he retains professorships at the universities of Sheffield and East Anglia; and he has recently become Professor at Sienna University following the sad death of his great friend Riccardo Francovich, and he is keen to continue to fly the flag of medieval archaeology in Italy; the Penn has accepted that he has other commitments .
Penn Museum was founded on a grandiose scale in 1887 and built in the 1890s, with the original building completed and occupied in 1899. However, its glory days were during the first half of the 20th century, with a renaissance after WWII under its longest-serving Director, Fro (short for Froelich) Rainey (1947-1976). He was followed briefly by Martin Biddle (1977-1981), then by Robert Dyson (1981-1994), Jeremy Sabloff (1994-2004), and Richard Leventhal (2004-2006).
However Penn Museum has problems. It is a university museum, the museum of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. It is like the Ashmolean in Oxford or the Fitzwilliam at Cambridge, and such museums always tend to have problems in that, somehow, they are not central to the university’s core mission and therefore tend to be forgotten.
Thus, Richard Hodges has been introduced as a British outsider to bring in a fresh (British?) view of the museum.
Structurally the museum is something of a hotchpotch. It began in fine style, modelled in part after the church of Santo Stefano in Bologna, but only one of the five planned domes was built. Subsequent additions have not been altogether happy. In particular, the 1970s were unkind. The brutal concrete of the new additions does not blend in too well with the medievalism of the original building. There is the problem of visitors. Going round the museum is an eerie experience, with a quietness reminiscent of all too many museums in the 1950s. There is a sharp contrast with the British Museum: but if the British Museum – dare one say it – goes to one extreme and is in danger of becoming a trifle overcrowded, Penn Museum goes to the other extreme. How far should a university museum attract casual visitors? Perhaps Penn could attract a few more visitors.
They have had a wide range of activities. In the Americas they have been notable explorers of the Maya, notably at the greatest of all sites, Tikal in Guatemala, and more recently, at the site of Copan in Honduras, a site with a large number of inscriptions and beautiful carvings. The big excitement among the Maya has been the decipherment of the Maya inscriptions in the past generation, and Simon Martin, the Penn’s resident Mayanist will be telling us how the decipherment took place and his current work as an epigrapher at the excavations at Calakmul. But the Penn has always been strong on languages. One of their major long term projects has been the preparation of a dictionary of Sumerian to match the dictionary of Assyrian prepared by Chicago, and this is now going on-line.
There has been extensive work in the Near East too, notably at Gordion in modern Turkey, the home of King Midas, and the excavation of an unknown Babylonian site at Tel Es Sweyhat in Syria. Coming nearer home, they have a fine collection of native American material, especially from the Tlingit on the north-west coast of Canada. The Tlingit were well known, perhaps indeed notorious, for giving gigantic feasts known as potlatches which tended to end up with the lavish presentation, and sometimes destruction , of ceremonial gifts, including blankets. In 1904 the governor decided to put an end to all this by having a grand final potlatch after which they were all to be banned. However, 100 years later a centennial potlatch was held, and the Penn brought along some of the fine ceremonial headdresses that they had preserved in their collection.
There has also been work in Egypt digging a Middle Kingdom site at Abydos and collecting Middle Palaeolithic flints in the desert, as well as most recently in Laos, where they have been searching for Neolithic and Bronze Age sites along the middle Mekong. This tradition of world-wide expeditions keeps the Penn in the forefront of world archaeology, and we look forward to hearing more about their work.
Philadelphia, city of brotherly love
The museum is situated in America’s greatest historic city, and we spent a morning visiting the historic centre. Philadelphia plays an important role in American mythology, for it was here that the Declaration of Independence was proclaimed and the
Senate and the House of Representatives first met before they were transferred to their permanent homes in the newly-founded city of Washington.