'DP' reporter explores the secrets of Penn Museum

Reporter's Notebook: Paranormal stories are passed down from generation to generation

· October 30, 2011, 10:12 pm   ·  Updated November 1, 2011, 1:19 am

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Patrick Hulce | DP

In the days leading up to Halloween, The Daily Pennsylvanian took a tour of the Penn Museum’s galleries and storage rooms with its senior archivist Alex Pezzati.


“If a ghost exists, this is a great place for them,” Alex Pezzati said as he led me down a very narrow staircase into a low-ceilinged crevice.

After dark, the pristine furnished galleries of the Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and the dusty storage rooms and crawl spaces beneath them have a different story to tell.

“The artifacts alone might make you think that there are ghosts,” he said. “They’re all of dead people.”

Pezzati, the Museum’s senior archivist, holds the key to many of its secrets. Although he has never personally encountered anything strange, he has heard plenty of paranormal stories that date back to the Museum’s earliest days.

The stories can’t be found in the Museum’s archives though. They are passed down by generations of people who come to curate the Museum.

My tour started in the archives, a room packed full of white and gray boxes of records. When I probed Pezzati about the ghost stories, he started narrating one of a certain museum director, before suddenly remembering, “Oh, there was a sighting right here!”

He maneuvered around a few tables and gesticulated that his friend was standing right where he was.

“It was in the middle of the day, and all of a sudden, his face went blank as he swore he saw a man with a top hat walk by,” Pezzati recounted.

As we crammed into the smallest nooks and crannies of the Museum, I saw the pipes and heating gauges of its underbelly and the crevices that date back to when the Museum was built in 1899.

Pezzati had wanted to take me to the sub-basement — the site of 2006 College and Wharton graduates Greg Bryda’s paranormal encounter in 2004 — but we were later told that the area was closed to the public.

Bryda’s story is forever engraved in the oral records of the Museum. In 2004, then-Wharton senior was working in the sub-basement, where he was vacuuming a shelf of South American canoes. The vacuum cleaner suddenly turned off. He began hearing noises and the sound of pottery smashing on the ground. He claimed to have seen a silhouette among the artifacts. But when the security guard came down, there was nothing — not one broken pottery shard.

Pezzati continued to tell the story of a previous Museum director, George Vaillant. Vaillant, who was director of the Museum from 1941 to 1945, committed suicide in 1945.

He is said to haunt the Museum on several occasions. In 2007, a wispy phantom-like image believed to be Vaillant was caught on one of the Museum’s 24/7 surveillance cameras.

“Yeah, you really see dead people now,” Pezzati joked as we passed by the Anthropology Department’s storage rooms where bright fluorescent lights illuminated dozens of human skulls.

Pezzati introduced me to John Notte, an electrician who works in the Museum facilities department. Notte is responsible for changing the light bulbs in the Museum. “I’ve been everywhere in this building at all hours of the day,” he said. He has never encountered anything peculiar.

“A few times I’ve even looked out for it. An older woman who used to come to the Museum used to see them and said that they don’t appear to everyone,” he said.

We passed by a plaque honoring 1931 Wharton graduate Charles Detwiler, who curated the Museum’s Egyptian archives in the ’70s and ’80s.

In an interview about paranormal activity in the Museum, Detwiler told The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1979 he had witnessed numerous accounts of mysterious phenomenon, disappearing artifacts and notes, weird smells and strange noises.

However, in Pezzati’s 23 years at the Museum, he has never seen anything himself.

“I’m not skeptical, sometimes there’s just no explanation,” he added.

Last Saturday night, the Young Friends of the Museum — a group of young professionals who help to bring in a younger audience to the Museum — hosted an event that invited guests to measure paranormal activity in the galleries through temperature sensors, camera and electric meters.

“We See Dead People” — the first paranormal event the Museum had hosted — featured the Free Spirit Paranormal Investigators. The nonprofit organization performs investigations on various sites on Philadelphia and seeks to educate the public on the paranormal world.

In addition to the devices that were placed in galleries, the ghost hunters brought psychics to prepare for paranormal communication, according to Bea Jarocha-Ernst, Administrative Coordinator of Membership and Annual Giving.

One hundred and sixty-six visitors ventured to different halls of the Museum to check the temperature meters and gauges set in place in the dark.

However, according to 2009 master’s recipient La Vida Johnson, a member of the Young Friends board, the event was organized primarily to attract people to the Museum rather than to detect paranormal activity in its galleries.

Johnson, who was happy with the turnout, didn’t expect to see any hauntings. “Though things are unexplained in the Museum all the time, I personally don’t believe the Museum is haunted,” she said.

But stories from security guards, strange noises from storage rooms and the video footage may suggest otherwise.

“I will let you decide what to make of it,” Pezzati said.

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