How does this changed focus affect the exhibitions that the museum mounts?

Some of the great art museums have beautiful pieces, but they’ve often been acquired through gift or purchase where they’re not well-provenanced. You don’t have context. Since the bulk of our collection comes from our own research, one of the museum’s great strengths is that we’re able to talk a great deal about context.

Exhibits in the last decade are more idea driven, and they’re also trying to engage the viewer with the results of new scholarship. That’s something we try to do, though we still have a long way to go.

In the past there was a disconnect with the fact that we are doing research in 18 countries—that was not always well-reflected in our exhibits. It looked as if this was a museum that had done great things 40, 50, 60, 100 years ago. That’s why we have things like plasma screens to show all kinds of field and analytic work. We’re trying to do more, showing what our curators and senior research scientists are doing [both in the museum] and on the Web, through virtual exhibits. Even compared to 10 years ago—let alone what we’re talking about as the heyday of “romantic” archaeology—this is a much more dynamic and exciting place, with just all kinds of neat things going on across the board, in the field, in the lab, in the classroom, in the exhibit halls, in the storage areas, and now I think on the Web and in our publications.

How important do you consider what one might call the “public” side of the museum—bringing more people in and making it more attractive to school groups, for example, as well as to students on campus?

We have a number of initiatives to try and bring the general public here and also reach out to school children—more than 40,000 school kids come to the building each year. We also have programs like International Classroom and Museums on the Go that reach out to them. We also have the Commonwealth Lecture Program, where we provide lecturers to every single county in the commonwealth, that the state legislature helps support.

We want to bring the museum to the attention of the public, and the more people we can attract here the better, but we also realize that, in fact, a major traveling exhibit of ours might be seen by hundreds of thousands of people, and obviously virtual exhibits can be seen by millions of people around the globe. We also have a very active loan policy in which we loan our materials to museums both here and abroad.

As for students, another goal will be to integrate the museum more into the academic and student life on campus. I’m certain that this will be one of the charges of my successor. The Mainwaring Wing gives us the space to get students more involved in research. There are research rooms where undergraduates can do a senior thesis on aspects of the museum’s collection. We’re trying to do more lectures and programming that relate to student interests. There is an ancient-studies floor at Harnwell College House, for example. The Provost’s Council on Arts and Culture, which [Deputy Provost] Peter Conn chairs, was really something that I helped initiate and that I had been lobbying for almost since the day I arrived. Penn has incredible arts and culture resources but few appreciate the whole, and I think particularly with [Provost] Bob Barchi and Peter Conn’s leadership, the University has really taken the arts and culture to heart.

Whatever form this group takes in the future, there is now a central appreciation for arts and culture on campus, and there are things the many arts and cultural organizations can do in common in terms of marketing, of publicity, but also working with student groups. A lot of the arts and culture groups are either student-run or heavily student-invested—anything from the Writers House to all the theater, music, and so on. I think we can certainly strengthen our presence on campus working with other groups. Even though [the museum] has a strong role on campus, it is in many ways more visible off campus than on. Internationally, if you say Penn [people will think of] Wharton, maybe the hospital, or the museum. We are one of the most visible aspects locally, nationally, and internationally of the University.

You have to balance the scholarly and public sides of the institution. Are there tensions between them that need to be worked through?

Absolutely. And it’s still problematic, particularly for our curators. Half of their dutues relate to the straight academic side, the other half to the museum. Now a lot of the museum responsibilities are things that will support their academic careers in terms of tenure, promotions, and raises—but doing exhibits, doing a lot of public programming and outreach, the reality is that such activities do not have the same weight as publishing a book or a series of peer-reviewed articles. There’s always a worry of how to balance that, not only for the museum’s sake but also for the individual’s sake. I would like to find ways for that kind of public work—which I think is very important—to be given stronger weight in judging people’s careers.

I think there is a moral obligation for scholars, from the sciences to the humanities, to make their research understandable to the public—who, after all, support them. I think there is growing recognition in academia that this obligation is important. But I am encouraged that academic leaders in College Hall, such as [School of Arts and Sciences Dean] Sam Preston recognize the issues and are thinking about them.

After 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan, and again since the war in Iraq, the museum has taken an active role in providing background information on those cultures and also on the issue of looting of archaeological artifacts in Iraq. How do activities like those fit into the museum’s mission?

We’re talking about the relevance of the museum. We have scholars here very knowledgeable about Afghanistan, and so, after the invasion, we had public presentations that were very well attended just giving historical background on why Afghanistan is such a difficult political place. Why is it a place that the Taliban and al-Qaeda could have such a successful hold? And certainly with Iraq—a whole series of our scholars worked in Iraq in the pre-Saddam Hussein past—we felt that one of our public responsibilities with this situation was to try and be as helpful as possible in providing historical context for our audiences and advising on the archaeological problems there.

After the initial furor over the looting at the Baghdad Museum, we came to realize that the larger problem was the looting of archaeological sites throughout the country. Again we had a series of public presentations here. In particular, Richard Zettler, who is curator in charge of our Near Eastern Section, gave very well-attended presentations—we’re talking hundreds of people—on the current archaeological situation in Iraq. He and Steve Tinney [who heads the Sumerian Dictionary Project], offered a presentation up in New York at the Penn Club looking at ancient Iraq and relating it to modern problems, and Richard and I wrote an op-ed piece for the Inquirer. He has been on call to a number of agencies to give expert advice as well.

This is an example of where the museum can be very relevant and important by providing context for current affairs, but there clearly are lots of other ways where the museum is connected with present concerns. For example, Clark Erickson, who undertakes archaeology in Bolivia, is working with local farmers showing them how agricultural techniques from time periods centuries in the past were much more productive and efficient [“Gazetteer,” March/April 2001]. Working with some of the local farmers, he’s helping to make the agriculture today more efficient, based on successful techniques from hundreds and hundreds of years ago. He is trying to improve lives through archaeology, which might have seemed an oxymoron a decade or two ago!

This is another part of this new kind of archaeology—not that everything we do in archaeology and anthropology is relevant—but there is a very strong component of public-interest anthropology in the department here. The kind of work pioneered by biological anthropologist Frank Johnson on nutrition in West Philadelphia is an example. A lot of our scholars, both in the museum and certainly in the anthropology department, such as [Professor of Anthropology] Peggy Sanday and Paula Sabloff, are working with [Center for Community Partnerships Director] Ira Harkavy [“A Matter of Trust,” July/August 2003] in programs in West Philadelphia as well as on projects of their own.

So, the University Museum is not an old-fashioned, fusty museum of antiquities, but a dynamic place that is totally relevant—to the University and Philadelphia, in particular, but to national and global concerns as well. I’d like to think I’ve helped to further stimulate these developments, and I’m very optimistic that my successor will be able to come in and continue to foster those positive trends. Hopefully, 10 years from now that trajectory will remain on an upward climb.

I’m not going to say that I’m going to regret stepping down, because I’m looking forward to switching gears and getting back to teaching and writing, but at the same time it’s been a really incredible ride!

page 1 > 2 > 3 > 4

2004 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 02/27/04

Full Circle
By John Prendergast
Photography by Candace diCarlo

page 1 > 2 > 3 > 4