The very first issue of the Gazette includes a report about a University Museum expedition in Nippur in what is now Iraq. Can you talk about the role the Museum has played historically at Penn and, more generally, in the fields of archaeology and anthropology?

I think it’s quite fascinating. There are historical reasons that Penn, instead of establishing a major art museum, had as its major museum an institution specializing in archaeology and anthropology, one going back now more than 115 years. One of the immediate reasons was a marvelous combination of an interest in a certain kind of scholarship—and development. There was a certain group of wealthy gentlemen that Dr. William Pepper, who was then the provost, wanted to get to support the University—John Wanamaker and others. Obviously I’m simplifying it, but he wanted to attract their interest to Penn, and he knew also that a major field opening up in archaeology was what was then called the Holy Lands, or the Bible Lands, and he was interested in having the University be a pioneer in that area. So he approached Wanamaker and others and said, “The University would like to begin scholarship in this area. Would you gentlemen support this—in particular support the mounting of expeditions in the field?” Again simplifying, the answer was, “Yes, we will—if the University will pledge to build a building to house the wonderful treasures that our expeditions are going to bring back.”

That was the pact that Pepper sealed, in support of the University doing this new research—in Mesopotamia, to start with, and it spread from there. Initially, the museum was in College Hall and quickly outgrew that in the 1890s, and then was in the Furness Building. As it was [becoming] clear it was going to outgrow that, in 1895, Pepper said, “Yes, we’ll start doing the planning for a museum.” So they got the original plan from Wilson Eyre and his architectural colleagues; they went to the city to get this land donated; and they began the fundraising that resulted in the initial phase of that larger project in 1899.

And the museum was fortunate. It had through the years inspired leadership and wonderful, innovative scholars—and it also was doing good scientific work at a time when it was possible, with good relations with governments, to bring out major pieces. Also, because of the special nature of Philadelphia, these collections were augmented through loans and then gifts from the American Philosophical Society and the Academy of Natural Sciences, which decided not to go into this area. As just one example, we have a limited number of pieces that Lewis and Clark collected, that Lewis sent back to Jefferson en-route. Jefferson gave them to the American Philosophical Society, and then they came to us.

In anthropology, this University was an important early player, and more broadly the museum has served as a focus for interests in the ancient world. Of any major research university in the country, Penn has one of the largest, if not the largest, group of scholars interested in the ancient world in a variety of disciplines. If you’re looking at anthropology, if you’re looking at ancient Middle Eastern studies, Asian studies, at art history and classical studies, religious studies, the history department itself, we’re a remarkable group.

The Museum also has had incredible, almost charismatic, leaders: For example, the first full director, George Byron Gordon—a major figure in the earlier part of the 20th century—and certainly Froelich Rainey, who cemented the international reputation of this museum when he was director in the late 1940s right on through the early 1970s, which was a time of great growth. Martin Biddle for a short time, and then particularly Bob Dyson, were individuals who professionalized the museum and made it a modern leader in terms of not only research but museology—care of collections, public presentations, and so on.

Since I’ve been here, as the museum’s staff, budget, and activities grew over the past decade, it became clear that our overall administrative organization had to be rethought and strengthened, too. This restructuring has been an ongoing process with the most recent changes occurring as a result of an intensive strategic planning process several years ago. In particular, the creation of the positions of deputy director (in charge of the day-to-day operation of the museum) and deputy director for curatorial affairs (responsible for oversight of collections activities and liaison to the curators and researchers) have helped rationalize and improve the operation of the museum and have freed some of my time for additional fundraising and planning activities. These positions are ably filled by Dr. Gerry Margolis (deputy director) and Professor Harold Dibble (DDCA), who have been of tremendous support to me and the museum as a whole.

I should also mention what a great support my wife, Dr. Paula Sabloff [a senior research scientist at the Museum and an adjunct professor of anthropology], has been. Her indefatigable efforts in fundraising, her helpful ideas, and her constant encouragement have been incredibly important to me and to the museum.

The museum continues to conduct expeditions all over the world, but to a non-specialist, it can seem like those earlier years represent what one might call the “heroic” or “romantic” age of archaeology and anthropology.

Part of the romance is that you had all kinds of out-of-the-way places that were difficult to get to. Given the nature of the modern world, you can go almost anywhere. My wife works in Mongolia. There aren’t too many places that are perceived as more off-the-beaten-track—but there are Internet cafes on every corner in Ulan Bator! So it’s hard to say, “I’m going into the jungle for six months, and no one will see hide nor hair of me.” You can still go into the jungle for six months, but you might be calling by satellite phone and have some kind of computer connection.

Probably just as importantly, the goals have changed. In the case of archaeology [during] what you’re calling the great romantic period—especially archaeology as practiced by museums, but I think overall—the goal was object-oriented. It was to find great things, some of which, hopefully, you could legally bring back to the museum to be studied, displayed, and so on.

Though it’s hard to pin down which came first, archaeology today is much more interested in ideas. At the same time, given the nature of antiquities laws in virtually every country in the world, it’s impossible to bring back objects. Archaeology is more interested in how field research as well as laboratory research can illuminate our ideas of peoples and cultures in the past, and particularly how they changed and adapted to different circumstances. The end result may not be the Indiana Jones or Lara Croft kind of image—not that archaeology ever was like that, but still where you’re out to find the gold statue, or the tomb.

Not to say that there are not archaeologists interested in finding a tomb, but it’s usually in the service of a broader sense of what that will tell us about the royal elite and how they ruled and changed or rose and fell. In my own area, how and why were the Maya—with a stone-tool technology—able to sustain a complex urban civilization for more than 1,500 years in a jungle environment with populations and agricultural activities that far outstrip what you see today with modern technology?

Our at-least partial failure is that we have not always been successful in communicating this intellectual excitement of the “new archaeology” to the public as much as the old adventure-archaeologist image from the B movies. Although I think we are starting to do a much better job, until recently there has not been the same appreciation. That’s changed—God knows, you turn on A&E, the Learning Channel, the History Channel, PBS and others, almost every night you’re going to find some focus on archaeology. Now some of that is the old traditional archaeology, but [in] a lot of it there’s a how or why question—even if it often has the word mystery in it, too.

We have much better understandings of ancient peoples, appreciation of their achievements, and I think in many ways have made their cultures relevant to society today. It may be heresy for a museum director to say, but my interest is not in objects. We have an important role in stewardship—in maintaining, studying, utilizing the collection—but the goal is ideas and understanding what the object can tell us, not the object itself. And I think that’s a very positive step.

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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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