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A Museum Perspective on Internationalization at Penn

by Jeremy A. Sabloff and Joyce White

Long before "globalization" became a buzz word of the late 20th century, the 110-year old University of Pennsylvania Museum, now one of the leading archaeology/anthropology museums in the world, formed partnerships with host countries in the exploration of humanity's past. Take Thailand as an example. Over the past three decades archaeologists of the Museum and Thailand's Fine Arts Department (FAD) have excavated twelve prehistoric sites. Six Thai archaeologists (and 10 students from other Southeast Asian countries) have come to Penn and, after graduating with masters of science or doctorates, have gone on to prominent positions in their country's archaeological establishment.

One of the Penn/FAD joint excavations in Thailand has had particular renown. In 1992 Ban Chiang was inscribed by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) as a World Heritage Site, eighteen years after its excavation in 1974-75. This site is now mentioned in most introductory world prehistory texts, and a Smithsonian-produced exhibition on the research traveled internationally before being permanently installed in a specially built museum in Ban Chiang village in the northeastern part of the country.

The Museum celebrated this long-term collaboration in October, when His Excellency, Nitya Pibulsonggram, Ambassador of Thailand to the United States, President Rodin, and Dr. Jeremy Sabloff co-hosted a festive event honoring Ban Chiang and the continuing relationship between our Museum and Thailand. Incense, Thai food contributed by many local Thai restaurants, and enchanting Thai music filled the Museum's Rotunda. With more than 350 guests in attendance, approximately 40% of whom were Thai or Thai-American, and an atmosphere of multi-cultural warmth and conviviality, one had to feel that goodwill and spirit of cooperation boded well for continued future partnership between Penn and Thailand.

Cross-cultural partnerships are not easily established or maintained. Negotiating the intricacies of relating to many countries at one time (the Museum sponsored archaeological and anthropological research projects in eighteen different countries this past year alone), each with different bureaucracies, antiquities laws, and histories with the West and with Penn is fraught with challenges and periodic tempests. Holding to an ethical course while still carrying on our mission to investigate human diversity through time also requires considerable thoughtful effort and ongoing case by case reassessment. Over the decades, perspectives on research and collecting have changed radically.

In 1970, the UNESCO convention on the acquisition of antiquities changed forever the way that the University of Pennsylvania Museum--and museums everywhere--would think about collecting. Artifacts without clear provenance (information about their past), black market artifacts, artifacts host governments did not want removed-were not to be acquired by museums if they had left their country of origin after the convention had been ratified. The University of Pennsylvania Museum was an early supporter of the convention and a leader among museums in trying to stem the acquisition of looted antiquities.

By the time of the UNESCO convention, the world, and the nature of archaeology, had changed much. With renewed interest in cultural heritage in countries around the world, the days when archaeologists could negotiate a simple permit to excavate ancient treasures and carry them back to museums had long passed. Now the "treasure" that Museum researchers would bring home would be knowledge about our shared human past, while the obligations to publish--and further share the wealth--would grow. Over the years, the Museum had made a fundamental shift in priorities--from the acquisition of objects, to the acquisition and dissemination of knowledge. Maintaining true to the letter and the spirit of the UNESCO convention has helped us to establish useful cooperative partnerships with other countries.

Successful multi-national efforts require sustained devotion of both individuals and institutions as well as sustained infusion of resources. In the current economic climate, finding ongoing sources of funding for archaeological work is not straightforward. For example, the Museum is particularly pleased at the plural sources of funding that have supported the Thai research and its publication thus far. The National Science Foundation, National Geographic Society, American Philosophical Society and the Ford Foundation, among others, have provided funding for the Museum's research programs in Thailand. Private sources of funding have also been essential. For instance, at the October 25th Thai celebration, a $300,000 challenge grant was announced with the anonymous donor offering $100,000 to match $200,000 to be raised. The challenge grant will be used to support many aspects of analysis and publication. Important funding has also been contributed from Thai sources. The government of Thailand contributed to the excavation at Ban Chiang, and more recently, Thailand's John F. Kennedy Foundation has given a major grant to support the publications of the Ban Chiang monograph series. Sharing the financial burden can only strengthen the long-term partnership.

Similarly in Turkey, to cite another example, the Museum has forged an excellent working relationship with the government, corporations, and private citizens. The Museum has been working on and off at the great archaeological site of Gordion, home of the legendary King Midas, since 1950 and currently is cooperating with the Turkish government to conserve the site and promote tourism. A non-profit Gordion Foundation also has been established in Turkey to raise funds from the private sector in Turkey to support this work.

The Museum's ongoing research at the famous Maya site of Copán, Honduras, provides another good example of productive, cooperative research. Our Museum has joined forces with the Peabody Museum, Harvard University, the Middle American Research Institute, Tulane University, and the Honduran government to undertake a pioneering project inside Copán's great Acropolis. Supported in part by funding from the Inter-American Bank, this fieldwork is successfully helping to create an important tourist destination in Honduras, while revolutionizing scholarly understanding of ancient Maya civilization.

The Museum, through its own research, through the field training of large numbers of graduate and undergraduate students in numerous foreign countries, through the many visits of foreign scholars to work with our extensive, world-wide collections, and through the loans of our objects for exhibition all over the globe, lives and breathes inter-nationalism on a daily basis. We are proud to contribute to the Uni-versity's visibility throughout the world and are delighted with the emphasis on internationalism in the Agenda for Excellence.

Dr. Sabloff is the Charles K. Williams II Director of the University of Pennsylvania Museum and Dr. White is a Senior Research Scientist in the Asian Section of the Museum.

Return to:Almanac, University of Pennsylvania, January 20, 1998, Volume 44, Number 18