Something old, something new

Jeremy Sabloff

With the Bush administration trying to take a bite out of the budget of the Smithsonian Institution, University of Pennsylvania Museum Director Jeremy A. Sabloff suddenly found himself in the media in December, trying to protect the Smithsonian’s scientific research programs. The media fuss has quieted down, but Sabloff was circumspect about the final outcome.

Sabloff chairs a commission of renowned scientists now examining those research programs and advising the Smithsonian on how to strengthen and streamline them. He suddenly had to fit press conferences into his already busy life at the Museum, which this week began moving 100,000 pieces from the collection out of storage in the deep basement to the just completed Mainwaring Wing, designed and built under his tenure as director. And more changes at the internationally known museum are coming.

Jeremy Sabloff

After eight years, the director of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology is seeing his earliest plans reach fruition. He’s got more improvements on tap.

Photo by Candace diCarlo

We asked Sabloff, who talks like a man in a rush, about plans for the Museum and his role at the Smithsonian.

Q. Were you taken by surprise when your commission chairmanship required you to be a media spokesman?
Absolutely. I had to hold press conferences, which I’d never done before. It’s one of those things where you have to think on the fly and be very careful because lots of time, inadvertently, you’ll use words or a phrase that can be taken ways you didn’t intend.

It’s been on one hand a daunting experience. It’s not as much being in the spotlight as being responsible for organizing, setting agendas for an 18-member group of world-class scholars. We set ourselves a year to come up with a comprehensive plan that we know scientists, researchers as well as administrators at the Smithsonian can buy into and that the secretary and the regents find they can implement…at a time when budgets are growing tighter.

…The commission, I hope, will really do a service for the Smithsonian, and in doing so, is doing a service for the American people. It is our museum. Also for me I’ve been able to just get lots of ideas that I can bring home.

Q. For example?
We visited the Air and Space Museum yesterday. ...How do they keep their research in front of the millions of people coming through the door?

They’re working on exciting things with different kinds of TVs, with changing materials that you can almost project onto your Web site, which can be updated on a daily, monthly basis.

You take our museum. We had active research in 18 different countries last year. There’s no other museum that has the global reach for anthropological and archaeological research that we do. We have projects literally from Mongolia to Bolivia. We’re doing a lot of important, cutting-edge research. How do you reflect that research in ways that you can communicate to the public?

The Museum’s Web site averages more than 15 million hits a year, it averages [hits from] more than 70 countries per week. We have research reports posting each day in the field.

Q. Why was the Mainwaring Wing built?
It has two major functions. The principal one is collection storage. We have a fantastic perishable collection. By that I mean wood, textiles, basketry that have been housed in basement and subbasement areas that mainly are not climate-controlled, so they’ve been at risk because of the fluctuating temperature and humidity. We’ve stabilized most of the things. But for research access—for instance, you may have baskets that are in barrels in seven layers of plastic to protect them—well, you have researchers and students who want access and they can’t get to them.

When I came here on top of the board’s list was, you have to do something about the perishable collections that are in the basement areas. The conceit in the 1890s was that everything was on display. As our collections grew rapidly in the earlier parts of the 20th century—we have over a million objects in the Museum—we had to find places that were never meant to be storage. … I came back to the board and said, What we should do is take the last place in the original plan for the Museum and finish the courtyard that was on the 1899 plan and make that a building that would be a state-of-the-art storage for about 100,000 objects that we identified that were at risk.

The other part of the project is…the Stoner Courtyard. It was landscaped by Laurie Olin’s (Current, Dec. 13, 2001) firm and it’s going to be a terrific urban green space. And I hope that it will be something that people in West Philadelphia will come and use. Before a game on Saturdays, you can come picnic over here.

The hope is that we’ll actually have two entrances. [The Stoner Courtyard] will be completely handicapped accessible. The other one we can’t make accessible from the street, but we’re going to make it accessible from inside, so when there are events in the garden, it’ll be accessible from the building. It’s one of those things where we’ve certainly followed the legal guidelines, but this will take us beyond that.

A couple of weeks ago I was standing with Bruce Mainwaring, in the garden. We’d just done a quick tour, and he looked at me and said, ‘This exceeds my expectations.’ …We’ll formally dedicate both the Mainwaring Wing and the courtyard May 2.

Q. And more changes are coming?
We will start this summer with our next major project, which is to air condition and renovate our four old buildings.

The first phase of that will involve completely digging up the [other] courtyard, where the reflecting pond is, [for] all the…air conditioning equipment plus 13,000 square feet of air-conditioned new space which will house new laboratories. …We’ll actually be able to bring our paper archives and our photo archives together in climate-controlled space. It will free up new gallery space. …We’re going to bring the courtyard closely back to [building architect] Wilson Eyre’s original 1899 plan.

Q. What happens to exhibition spaces?
In October we’re going to open our new Etruscan-Roman galleries, which along with our Greek gallery will give us four galleries in the classical world. …We have the best Etruscan collection in the United States. It’s not been on display.

Q. Will the renovations affect the appearance of the galleries?
No, that’s the key.

Q. How do you fit in field work? Do you do it and do you miss it?
The answer is no and yes. There are just not enough hours in the day.

Q. But you took the job here anyway. Why?
Basically Penn started me on my life’s work so I’ve always felt a great deal of gratitude and loyalty. I literally came back 30 years to the month from when I graduated in 1964 and became director in 1994. Penn got me interested in archaeology. ...I hadn’t heard about archaeology and anthropology before I came to Penn. And it was totally serendipitous. I had an advisor, who asked at the beginning of my sophomore year, What are you going to major in? I hadn’t a clue. So he said, What interests you? And I said, Oh, I’m interested in history and architecture and so on. And he said, Have you ever been down to the museum to take a course in the anthropology department? I said no. He said, That’s what you should do. The first course that I came down to take, it was jointly taught by Loren Eiseley and Froelich Rainey. Loren Eiseley was probably one of the most visible scholars in the arts and sciences at Penn and Rainey was director of the museum. And it was an Introduction to Archaeology course. I fell in love with it. So in a sense, this was coming full circle. …You’re not often offered that kind of opportunity.

Originally published on February 7, 2002