Penn Museum celebrates 125th anniversary


Visitors gained free admission to a 12-hour celebration filled with tours, exhibits and artifacts


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A sphinx statue at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology shows some holiday spirit. Last night, the museum celebrated its 125th anniversary and the launch of its new online excavation timeline.

Photo by Abby Graham and Abby Graham


On Thursday, the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology was looking younger than its years.

On the day of its 125th anniversary, visitors gained free admission to a 12-hour celebration filled with behind-the-scenes tours, late-night exhibits and interactive artifacts. Earlier that morning, the museum had stepped into the future with the launch of their new Online Excavation Timeline — an interactive website that allows users to explore the museum’s archaeological expeditions over time.

As visitors entered, the museum’s flagship exhibit, Maya 2012, stood to one side invitingly, while a clock counted in Mayan time just above their heads. The exhibit was half-price all day, and many took the plunge to learn about the complexities of Mayan calendar systems and what that has to do with the supposedly upcoming apocalypse.

In the other galleries, the head curators sat at tables fielding questions from visitors and lecturing to crowds.

While there were families and older adults everywhere, not so many Penn students attended.

Lori Baynard, who brought her young children all the way from the south of New Jersey, said, “I homeschool my kids, so a day like this is a great teaching opportunity.”

The Penn Museum Archives, usually closed to the public, were open all day. Senior Archivist Alex Pezzati and Assistant Archivist Eric Schnittke ran around attending to the gazes of entering visitors.

The room is an old library that has been repurposed as an archive, housing many shelves, old framed portraits and iron spiral staircases leading up to catwalks with boxes and books piled high. Old phonographs played wax cylinders as tour groups perused the shelves.

“I tell people my job is basically being Indiana Jones,” Schnittke said. “This is my favorite room in the whole building.”

A long table at the room’s center laid out Penn Museum expedition records going back to the 1880s. Pezzati was, like all the other museum workers, an unstoppable spout of facts and history, rattling off details about Amazonian trips and Mesopotamian excavations. He traced the Penn Museum’s history from its founding and initial success — under then-provost William Pepper in the 1880s — to its far-reaching influence in the following decades.

The Penn Museum has long celebrated milestones since its 1887 founding. The first major celebration was its 50th anniversary, when the museum published a magazine called “The Museum of Belshazzar’s Sister,” comparing itself to an ancient museum in Babylon. The magazine became a mission statement for the museum and it started a tradition of producing publications at each celebration.

For their 125th anniversary, however, the museum’s traditional publication went digital. The Online Collections Database, released in January, will make public all of its collections and records.

Penn Museum Chief of Staff Jim Mathieu said, “The galleries hold less than one percent of all the stuff the museum holds.” These days, the database contains close to half, or 330,000 records, of everything in the museum. That number will only grow, he added, since archivists are still digitizing artifact cards all the way back to the 1880s.

This task, Pezzati said, “might take decades, even centuries. But we’re doing it.”

There will be some unpublished items, mainly human remains for ethical reasons, but it stands that an overwhelming fraction of the museum’s artifacts will be freely searchable online. The staff wants even more functionality with the database in years to come, including accounts and logins that will allow users to save galleries of examined records. “It’s like people will get to curate their own exhibitions,” Mathieu said.

At 7:30 p.m., the first flashlight tours began. Each visitor — or anyone who could get his or her hands on one — was given a dinky little flashlight and sent with a group into a darkened gallery. Despite the eerie atmosphere, Lara Kindle, a student at the Graduate School of Education, said, “It was a childhood fantasy to have a night at the museum, so I was really happy for this tour.”

The Egyptian tour focused on mummies and mummification, a grisly exhibit made grislier by the dark. A mummy normally exposed by sterile, fluorescent light was made terrifying under the yellow flashlights, and kids running up to cases could be heard running back screaming for their mothers. Penn Museum Consulting Scholar Jane Hill led the tour and said, “People are fascinated with this stuff. Seeing death brings you closer to your own humanity.”

In the end, mostly everyone seemed impressed with the day. Schnittke summed the day up well, saying, “This is still a world-class institution.”

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