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The first lecture in the series on Nov. 11 examined Egyptian monuments. Although the Penn Museum is open, the Great Lecture series is being held on BlueJeans. Credit: Kylie Cooper

The Penn Museum launched its 2020-2021 Great Lectures series on Nov. 11 to examine the current political controversies around historical monuments.

The “Great Lectures: Great Monuments” series features Penn faculty and guests who “explore the meaning of monuments, their connotations today, and how their significance has shifted over time,” Penn Museum Public Relations Director Jill DiSanto wrote in a news release. The series will run from November through June, with eight lectures delivered on certain Wednesdays at 6:00 p.m. 

Tena Thomason, Associate Director of Public Engagement at the Penn Museum, said this year’s topic on monuments is especially relevant given the recent influx of demands to remove statues in the United States that glorify figures connected to slavery or colonialism. The theme was selected through a survey of Penn Museum’s audience interest, discussions between staff members, and a committee involving the museum’s senior management team and public engagement department. 

“We chose the theme of monuments to concentrate on because the topic is of great importance right now,” Thomason said. “It links the ancient past with contemporary issues.”

The series’ first lecture occurred on Nov. 11, during which Kevin Cahail, Collections Manager of Penn Museum’s Egyptian Section, examined Egyptian monuments, including temples and palaces, specifically the Pharaoh Merenptah. Cahail also spoke about the meaning of the word “monument.” 

“Our term 'monument' comes from the Latin 'monumentum' — something that we remember,” Cahail said. “But interestingly, the Egyptians had another slightly different take on it. The monument of a man is his goodness, he whose character is evil will be forgotten.”

Thomason said this year’s Great Lectures series focuses largely on current topics. On Dec. 2, poet Caroline Randall Williams will discuss her New York Times column, “You Want a Confederate Monument? My Body is a Confederate Monument.”

"If there are those who want to remember the legacy of the Confederacy, if they want monuments, well, then, my body is a monument. My skin is a monument," Williams wrote in her column, which called for the tearing down of confederate monuments because of their violent history of racism and oppression. 

Joseph McGill Jr., founder and director of The Slave Dwelling Project, will also speak on historic buildings for slaves that still exist in his Feb. 3 lecture “Slave Dwellings, Monuments, and the United Daughters of the Confederacy.”

Another change for the series this season is the virtual environment, as lectures are planned to be delivered through BlueJeans, rather than at the Penn Museum’s auditorium. Thomason said that while going virtual has allowed the museum to reach a larger audience, attendees also miss the interaction and ability to converse afterwards. She said the Great Lectures series may convert to a hybrid model for next semester once it is safe to do so. 

“We wanted to introduce the Penn Museum to a general audience, and share our expertise, research, scholarship, and collections,” DiSanto wrote in an email to The Daily Pennsylvanian. “The Great Lectures Series is just one way that we continue our ongoing outreach.”

Thomason said she encourages Penn students to attend the series, as the lectures are not strictly academic but rather catered to the general public, and students may find topics of interest. Students may register for free using the “pennstudent” code. 

“You’re attending a lecture from these highly exciting professors that are geared towards a general audience,” Thomason said. “You don't have to be an expert to come and learn, so it's very much different than like a class atmosphere. And it's nice to be able, at least for our audiences, to be able to interact with the curators and professors that they may not normally get to see.”

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