There is a fundamental difference between partying in your friend’s house and at a club downtown. Though you can do essentially the same thing at either place, a club is a destination, a place that people travel to, that they seek out. But that does not mean you should try to turn your house into a club. This is something the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology would do well to remember as it considers the addition of dining and other facilities in order to turn itself into a “destination.”
The University Museum has been undergoing a bit of a transition, first brought to attention last year when 18 researchers were laid off, though about half were later rehired. Recently, The Daily Pennsylvanian reported the Museum intends to add enhanced dining facilities, possibly along the lines of White Dog, as part of an increased effort to draw tourists to the museum. If the museum hopes to draw more visitors, though, this is not the route to take.
Before I go into that, let me say that whatever changes are made, the University Museum is an incredible institution. Director Richard Hodges is correct when he says, “We [the museum] are probably better known outside of Philadelphia than we are in it.” The museum is home to unique and groundbreaking research. It has an excellent set of permanent exhibitions, and (more importantly) these collections were acquired fairly, not whisked away during a colonial adventure. (You think this doesn’t happen? Ask Greece if they ever got the Elgin Marbles back.) But all this does not a destination make.
An ideal “destination” museum would be something of the caliber of the Smithsonian Institution, but not every museum can have a Ben Stiller movie set there. Hodges suggests the Fitzwilliam Museum of Cambridge University as a good model for Penn. With 300,000 yearly visitors it is certainly a closer match to the Penn Museum’s 160,000. An even closer sibling in attendance levels is the Harvard Museum of Natural History, with 175,000 this year. These museums certainly don’t have better collections than Penn — I challenge you to name one specific piece that you would just HAVE to see at either of those, one famous piece around which you could plan a visit. If you are coming up blank, it’s with good reason. Their locations give them an edge.
According to Elisabeth Werby, the Harvard Museum’s executive director, Harvard’s museum benefits “from tourist interest in Harvard generally, as well as easy accessibility by public transportation.” Hodges noted that the University Museum’s location and parking woes make travel difficult. To this I add that it is located next to a massive hospital complex and lurks in the shadow of the Palestra — not quite aesthetically pleasing.
Though it pains me to say it, Harvard, located in lovely Cambridge, has a little more grab then Penn, the DMZ between West Philly and the rest of the city. As for the Fitzwilliam, go ahead and Google map that place. Note the verdant fields, and the fact that Britain’s Cambridge is also nicer than West Philly. The locales of these two museums are tourist-friendly in a way that the Penn Museum cannot match.
Nor should it have to. The Harvard Museum, Penn’s closest relation in this mix, had its best year yet and beat Penn only by about 15,000 visitors. Werby credits this success to a mix of additional exhibitions and an edgier photo collection.
One of the Penn Museum’s other initiatives is to reach out and highlight itself more skillfully, along the Harvard line, and this is a move to be applauded. Online initiatives and more aggressive promotion, already in the works, should easily be able to make up the difference in visitors between Penn’s museum and Harvard’s if done right. But nobody visits a museum to try the veal.
Sam Bieler is a College sophomore from Ridgeway, NJ. He is a member of the NEC. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.orgComments powered by Disqus
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