WHAT: “Discover Penn” is a free cell phone tour, launched about seven months ago by Penn’s Division of Facilities and Real Estate Services. By calling a number posted on a small sign at various sites around campus, people can listen to a short narration to learn about significant University buildings, sculptures, historical events and other points of interest.
WHERE: There are currently 10 sites on campus, including the bronze “Ben on the Bench” statue at 37th Street and Locust Walk, Skirkanich Hall and the wind monitor in Hamilton Village. All sites are marked with a small, low-to-the-ground red sign inscribed with the “Discover Penn” phone number.
RECOGNIZE THAT VOICE?: University Architect David Hollenberg gives a quick introduction on the voice recordings, and then a Penn faculty, alum or administrator gives a one-and-a-half to three minute narration about the site. There are some recognizable voices on the recordings: David Brownlee, the Shapiro-Weitzenhoffer Professor in the Department of the History of Art, narrates the Quad and Fisher Fine Arts Library; Pennsylvania Governor and Penn alum Ed Rendell talks about The Palestra; and University President Amy Gutmann discuss College Hall. “They’re all different in character,” says Hollenberg. “Some of them are hilarious, some of them are just very straightforward and some of them are full of academic information.”
SOMETHING ‘SERENDIPITOUS’: The idea is to keep it loose and fun—and not like a formal tour at all. “Penn is such an incredibly rich place, with so many interesting stories, that it seemed like a lighthearted way to get people to appreciate the campus as a place with a history in a different way than a serious academic book or tour,” says Hollenberg. “We wanted something sort of serendipitous that people could just encounter.”
INFORMAL USE: Hollenberg got the idea for the phone tour after visiting the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden and notes this technology is used at museums and historic sites everywhere, including Swarthmore College’s Scott Arboretum, Valley Forge National Historical Park and the Institute of Contemporary Art. As it turns out, Penn is the only place using this technology in this informal way. “We’ve resisted the notion that there’s some order in which you should go,” says Hollenberg. “We just want people to stumble upon it.”
POPULAR DESTINATIONS: The most popular sites change from month to month, says Taylor Berkowitz, senior planner of special projects in Facilities and Real Estate Services, but people always seem to want to hear about “Ben on the Bench,” College Hall and Alexander Liberman’s sculpture, “Covenant.” Since it was put in place, Berkowitz says the service has gotten about 900 unique users and averages five calls a day. “It ebbs and flows,” she says. “We see it spike a little bit during large University events. It tends to spike on the weekends.”
FUTURE SITES: This summer, the team hopes to add five more sites to the informal tour, which may include another piece of public art, a triplet trash bin to explain Penn’s recycling program, the campus as an urban forest, a Geology garden and the green space in front of Civic House. “The possibilities, in a way, are endless,” says Hollenberg. “It’s more about discovery than a comprehensive approach to the campus.”
Originally published on May 7, 2009