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Discover Penn: Unexpected Serendipity
January 13, 2009, Volume 55, No. 17

The University of Pennsylvania’s Division of Facilities and Real Estate Services has launched ‘Discover Penn,’ a campus-wide cell phone tour providing a new way to gain insight about campus landmarks, buildings and sculptures. Currently consisting of ten sites, the free, self-guided tour provides members of the Penn community and visitors with an exciting, new way to experience and learn about the University at their leisure.

Discover Penn consists of narrations of various key sites throughout the campus. Users will call the phone number displayed at any of the sites and, after dialing the place-specific prompt (see list below), hear a brief description about the site’s importance. Narrations are provided by members of Penn faculty, administration, and alumni, including architectural historian David Brownlee; Annenberg School of Communication’s former dean Kathleen Hall Jamieson; and Pennsylvania Governor Edward Rendell.

University Architect David Hollenberg said, “Our hope is to help users understand Penn in a different and unexpected way—as a place—its people, its art, its buildings, its academics, its landscape.”

Sites include College Hall, rumored to be the inspiration for the Addams Family ‘mansion’, the Moore Building, where the world’s first all purpose digital computer (ENIAC) was created, and Alexander Lieberman’s, Covenant. Narrations are site-specific and range in focus from historic to current events based, academic to architectural, athletic to environmental.

Discover Penn uses technology from the California-based company Guide by Cell, to provide an accessible and casual way for users to learn about the University. The program’s unstructured design allows site-specific and spontaneous discovery, as callers can hear any number of narrations in any order. User costs are limited to cell phone minutes. Penn community members and visitors are invited to take part in this innovative new way to Discover Penn, said Mr. Hollenberg, who described the chance encounter with the sign containing the phone number as “unexpected serendipity.” 

The cell phone tour works when users call the phone number on the sign outside of the building or site. They are welcomed by Mr. Hollenberg and then go through a brief series of prompts to reach a narration about the place they’re standing in front of or walking by. These descriptions are provided by renowned Penn scholars and others closely connected to and very knowledgeable about the site. From there, callers can continue on to narrations of other Penn sites or leave feedback. The narration for each site averages about two minutes.

A cell phone tour, as opposed to a booklet or guided tour, allows participants to discover Penn’s campus on their own time through a more natural process. It allows for spontaneity, with the idea that anyone walking down 33rd Street or through the Green who sees the sign outside of Skirkanich or College Hall and wants to know more about it, need only call the number and receive a unique narration of the building or site.

There are currently ten sites, several of which will remain as core components of Discover Penn, in addition to five others that will be added this spring and rotated in the semesters that follow. In total, there will be 15 sites, ranging from buildings to artwork to gardens. Some are important icons on Penn’s campus and are included in the program due to their significance. Some of the narrations focus more on the architectural history of the building, such as the Fine Arts Library, designed by architect Frank Furness, or The Palestra, with its special place in basketball history, while others are more geared towards current events or academic achievement, such as the Annenberg Center or the Moore Building. Together, they provide insight into the many facets of achievement that make up Penn’s past, present and future.

The speakers range from professors to Penn alumni to Philadelphians who have a special connection to the campus. Many are experts in their fields, while others have a passion for the University or are alumni actively involved in the Penn community. As time passes, the core sights will be periodically updated and some recordings will be made available as archives on the Facilities Services website.

One of the advantageous things about the phone tour concept is that anyone on campus—current students, prospective students, parents, alumni, passers-by, West Philadelphians—can take part in the tour. “It’s a great opportunity for anyone and everyone to learn more about and connect with Penn and this unique urban campus. There is something for everyone and Discover Penn is an exciting new way to showcase all the different sides of this University,” added Mr. Hollenberg.

Annenberg Public Policy Center
ENIAC Historic Marker
Under construction: Annenberg Public Policy Center
Ben on Bench
Ben on the Bench at 37th and Locust Walk
Fisher Fine Arts Library’s restored entrance

Discover Penn sites currently include:

1   Palestra   

2   ENIAC (Moore School Building)   

3   Fisher Fine Arts Library   

4   College Hall  

5   Ben on the Bench   

6   Quadrangle  

7   Skirkanich Hall  

8   Annenberg Public Policy Center  

9   Covenant  

10 Wind/Hamilton Village



Almanac - January 13, 2009, Volume 55, No. 17