What are your feelings about leaving the directorship?

I decided if I was going to get back to teaching and research—which I wanted to do—now was the time. Secondly, and I think probably more importantly, when I came, the president and our board of overseers asked me to do certain things. I think I’ve done those, and that marked a kind of circle of completion. Also, I think 10 years is a good time. It’s good for the museum, for the institution, to have regular change.

It’s a harder job than it was when I started. It’s tiring, and this is a job that needs full-time energy—not only workdays, but evenings and weekends, and so on. I wouldn’t want to be in a situation where I wasn’t giving it full energy, and often one is the last person to realize that. I think I’ll be leaving at a time when the museum is stronger, and it’s nice to go out when you’re feeling good and not when someone comes to you and says, “It’s time.”

I very much like writing, which I have not had the time to do, and I like being with students, and I haven’t had much of a chance to do that, either. I have a sabbatical coming up next year, so it’ll give me a chance to play catch-up and retool. I have a tenured appointment in the anthropology department, and I also have a curatorship at the museum, so I’ll still have my tie to the museum, as well as my department.

You’ve spent a lot of your tenure focusing on facilities issues. Did you come in knowing that that was the biggest thing that needed to be addressed?

The most pressing issue that was put on my plate when I arrived was the state of the collections—and particularly the perishable collections, which were in storage areas in the basement and sub-basement that were never intended to be storage areas. A lot of these materials were at risk. They had been stabilized—it wasn’t that they were under active threat—but it was a situation where, for example, you had baskets that would be in barrels, in plastic, in more plastic [to protect them]. For a research collection, where we have our students, our curators, and staff, and then visitors who want to have access, it was always very difficult to get at the materials.

I think the assumption was that I would come up with a plan to climate-control the basement areas, but after looking at it and doing some comparative work, we realized that it would be incredibly expensive, and we would end up with lousy space that was air-conditioned. So I came up with a plan to take the last piece of the original Wilson Eyre architectural plan for the museum that was still available to us and complete the lower courtyard with a new storage building instead. I presented that idea to the board and the University, and it was met with great enthusiasm. The only daunting thing was the cost. As important as it was, to support something like that—that would not be a public building—you really had to know and love the museum and its mission. But the board really stepped up to support us, as did the University.

We decided to use the opportunity to do some other things, one of which was to install state-of-the-art fire-safety and security systems in the whole complex. The fire-safety needed significant updating, and the security system was almost nil. (We hadn’t had too much trouble with security, but felt that was good luck rather than our preparation.) We also wanted to create, or recreate, a grand entrance to the building and create an urban greenspace that would work for the museum and the University at large—which was accomplished with the construction of the Stoner Courtyard and Trescher Entrance. In addition, the Merle-Smith Gallery, which provided a new space for changing exhibitions of photography and artwork, was included in the project as well. And we also set up an endowment for the maintenance of the new wing, so that we would have that under control as well.

When we did all that, the pricetag came in at about $17 million—for a very specialized project. But we got incredible support. In fact, we decided in the end that our support was so broad and strong that we put every donor’s name on the plaque. Whether you gave 10 dollars or several million dollars your name is there.

In addition, the construction work allowed us to significantly increase the space of the Sumerian Dictionary Project [“Spreading the Word,” January/February 2003] in the Babylonian Section; and we were able to add a classroom for the anthropology department, among other things. The Mainwaring Wing was the feature, but there were a lot of shorts attached to it.

You mentioned how fragile the perishable collections are and the concerns about damaging them. After the Mainwaring Wing opened, how did you go about moving the objects to their new home?

We had to do a huge amount of planning. I remember someone saying, “Well, you have 125 staff members. Line them up and pass the objects.” But a number of the objects needed conservation, and we wanted to use the opportunity to check over all our cataloguing information, use new technology to digitize images of the materials that were being moved, and make sure the objects were touched as little as possible. We actually ended up having bakery carts lined with an acid-free paper so you could move an object once onto a cart or onto trays on the cart.

The architects basically created a building within the building for the storage areas, which are kept at a constant temperature and humidity. We have open fronts on the cases, so you can actually see the objects. We had further support from the William Penn Foundation to move the objects, and it took three years in the planning and execution. Just at the end of the summer of 2003, we finished moving 67,000 objects to the Mainwaring Wing. That was a major accomplishment.

Construction is continuing at the museum. In front of the west end of the building, where the main entrance used to be, it’s basically a big hole. Can you talk about that project?

Our next major construction project, the first phase of which we launched this past spring, will upgrade electricity and heating, bring air-conditioning to working areas and ultimately the major public areas. In doing that, we found that we can also make changes to create more public-gallery space by rationalizing where certain activities are located.

The first stage of the project, which is just laying the foundation of where we can put the HVAC, bring in chilled water, bring in the new electrical conduits and so on, takes about 12,000 square feet—which still leaves us with additional 13,000 square feet of new airconditioned space that we can use for new labs, and for other kinds of activities as well. That first phase is nearing completion, but we obviously have to do additional fundraising to fit out that space and move on to newer phases.

The next steps over the coming years will be to aircondition the Rotunda and Harrison Auditorium, the Coxe Wing [added in 1924], and the older part of the 1899 wing, and use this opportunity to upgrade where conservation, MASCA [Museum Applied Science Center of Archaeology], and those important activities are located. Overseeing major construction may not have been in the job description for museum director, but I’ve certainly learned, and I think this work—although parts of it have to be disruptive—has also galvanized the board and the staff.

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2004 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 02/27/04

Full Circle
By John Prendergast
Photography by Candace diCarlo

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