Remaking Penn Museum

Q&A/Penn Museum’s new director wants the world—and Penn—to flock to his galleries, not just because of the mummies, but because the museum is a hot bed of brand new ideas in archaeology and anthropology.

Richard Leventhal

“Pharaohs were doing things in the past no different from what George Bush does as a politician today.” 

Richard Leventhal has occupied the director’s office at Penn Museum for more than a year now, time enough to come up with a roster of ambitious plans. The Harvard educated anthropologist, who came to the museum from the School of American Research in Santa Fe, knows that some of his grander visions—like rethinking the design of every space in the building—will take years to materialize. But Leventhal’s energy can already be felt on a stroll through the museum’s sprawling galleries. With a series of quick fixes—a freshly painted wall here, a set of new labels there—Leventhal is busy sprucing up his space.

For the long term, Leventhal, a Mesoamerican expert who has conducted major digs in Belize and throughout Central America, is determined to bring together the museum’s strengths—in research, education and collections—and put the South Street institution on the map for ancient culture buffs and the general public alike.

Q. You’ve been here a little over a year. Does it feel like home yet?

A. I think it’s beginning to. I don’t get lost in the public spaces anymore, though I’ve been known to get lost in some of the darker recesses of storage.

Q. I know you have big plans for the museum. Tell me about some of them.

Richard Leventhal

A. I’ve been thinking about how this museum can be a focal point for the University in terms of intellectual thinking and research. What we do here is so interdisciplinary. We have people [doing work] here from the departments of anthropology, art history, classics, design, engineering. One of the things I’ve been working on and we just received funding for is a major conference program. These will be both private and public conferences. Some of my most exciting times intellectually have happened when I’ve been invited to go to a conference where they put together 15 to 20 of the top people in the world on a subject, close the door and throw food in. I went to one that was 10 days long—it almost killed us. I want to do that here, and we’d make sure that there are public aspects.

Q. Do you have plans for the education component?

A. I want to get not just the intellectual side going but also educate the K-12 community. I want to bring more and more students here. One of Amy [Gutmann]’s points is about access to the University, and in my mind it’s also making sure kids understand that universities are accessible and doable and one can participate in a university at many levels.

Q. What about public outreach in general?

A. We have the second greatest collection of archaeological and anthropological material in the world, second only to the British Museum. But not enough people know that. I think of this museum not as a repository for objects but a place of ideas about humans and human society. It’s a living museum not a museum of the dead. It’s a museum of the past and the present—about the future. ... If people understood better the history of Iraq, they’d understand better what’s going on there today. We need to understand humans and human society around the world and the only way to do that is to understand where they come from, where the cultural ideas come from and how you identify yourself with where you come from, your past. We study people’s past, whether it’s the past of Maya, Latin American civilizations or another part of the world. We’re going to do a show about Tut, and I want to stress the fact that pharaohs were doing things in the past no different from what George Bush does as a politician today. These are politicians who lead people and they’re successful because they lead people well or not as the case may be.

When we talk about Tut we need to present the fact that whether it’s Tony Blair or George Bush or Bill Clinton, they’re doing the same thing.

Q. Let’s talk about the building.

A. This is a gorgeous building, but it was built haphazardly and it’s slightly tired. We’re in the process of hiring a world-class architect to help us figure it all out and he has pointed out that when you’re in the museum you don’t know there’s an entire group of people doing research in here. It’s as if it’s completely separate. How do we put them together?
We need to think about entrances in the sense of do our entrances help us show off who we are. We need to think about the fact that we’re not welcoming. We don’t reach out to people.

Q. Hiring a world-class architect and rethinking all the spaces sounds like an expensive proposition. How will you pay for it?

A. We have money for the master plan in hand or committed. Once that’s done we’ll have to put numbers together for implementation and I expect that yes it will be a whole lot of money. I suspect we’ll break it up into phases. I hope we can begin to get that done fairly quickly. The only space I’ve told the architect not to change functionally is our big auditorium.

It was built as an auditorium and it’s one of my favorite spaces. But I hope to get the renovation of that started within the next six months.

Q. When can we expect air-conditioning?

A. We need to think through the space first so we know what each building will be used for, so we only need to renovate once. Otherwise you’re just running around trying to connect dots without a real plan.

Q. With your location here, do you feel isolated from the campus?

A. We are part of the campus. We have Franklin Field right across the street, but we’re on the edge. We need to think about how the museum can become part of an extension of the campus, not an appendage but rather integrated together.

Q. The name of the museum is such a mouthful. Any thoughts on changing that?

A. We’re in the process of doing a branding study to understand how we could present ourselves to the community without the tongue-tying process of saying “The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.” I never want to change it as a formal title. But we’re looking at a name that fits.

Q. Since the collections were formed decades ago, how do you make them reflect what’s going on today?

A. We can do that by talking about what we’re doing today. The kinds of things we found in the past are similar to what we find today. There are cultural property collection issues today. Our collections will not grow. The only collection that’s growing today is our archives, which is growing dramatically. They are a reflection of research that’s been done. That’s the meat of it. We’re never going to be the big public museum like the Franklin Institute. That’s not who we are, but my hope is that if, say, you’re interested in the most recent interpretation and research about Egypt, you’ll come to the Penn Museum.

Q. Do you miss working in the field?

A. Absolutely. Can you see me shaking? I miss it a lot. I truly enjoy being in Central America and working out in the jungle with my friends and colleagues. A week or two ago I turned to my wife and said, “I think I need to go to Central America next summer,” just for a couple of weeks to do research, to keep my finger in the pie.


Originally published on October 6, 2005