Gillian Wakely, the former head of educational programming at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, died at the Penn Hospice in Rittenhouse on Aug. 14 after a long battle with colon cancer. She was 67.
Wakely, who was raised in England, first became passionate about museums through her frequent visits to the British Museum, according to a letter she wrote for the Penn Museum’s magazine.
Robin Worman, Wakely’s brother, recalled rediscovering one of Henry VIII’s lost palaces on an excavation they both worked on when they were young. “That’s where she got the love of history,” he said.
Wakely’s love of history naturally extended into a love of museums. She first found out about the Penn Museum when she saw a photograph in an art history book of the “Ram in the Thicket” — an ancient artifact from Ur, southern Iraq — that is housed here. In a visit to Philadelphia, she stopped by the museum to take a look at the Ram, a moment that she said transformed her life.
“From the moment I stepped into the building, I was captured as much by the serenity and beauty of the spaces as by the extraordinary quality of the collections,” she wrote in the same letter for the magazine. She ran to the director’s office to apply for a job and a month later became a full-time docent in the museum’s education.
Since 1971, Wakely has dedicated her life to the museum’s education department, eventually rising to the position of Merle-Smith associate director of education. She officially retired on her birthday, December 31, 2011.
During her 40 years at the museum, Wakely was responsible for several initiatives. She created and fundraised for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Outreach Lecture Program, which was designed to foster understanding of different cultures around the world in Philadelphia students. The program brought together experts around the world to educate these students.
Wakely also took initiative in creating the Nevil Gallery for the Blind, an exhibit in the museum that includes ancient Egyptian artifacts which gives visually impaired visitors a chance to touch historical objects.
Her other passions included travel, reading and theater. She was also a member of the board of Philadelphia’s Wilma Theater, located in Center City.
“The Wilma Theater is so proud of her,” Worman said of Wakely, who dedicated a lot of reworded a bittime and energy to the theater. A memorial service will be held there on Aug. 29. The theater is also accepting donations for the Gillian Wakely Scholarship fund for students of the theater.
Wakely is survived by her brother, her sister-in-law, nephew, niece and grand-nephew.
“She made the artifacts in the museum speak,” Worman said. “She got people interested in them in new ways. She just wanted to spread knowledge.”
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