UPM gets Civic Center treasures

When Ginny Greene and her colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology opened boxes from the Civic Center Museum, they found items as wildly diverse as coconuts, fibers and textiles nestled side by side. The variety was staggering.

Now, months after hand-selecting which items from the Civic Center Museum collection to incorporate into the Museum’s own, Senior Conservator Greene is working with Registrar Xiuqin Zhou and keepers from different sections on an object-by-object inventory, cataloguing and organizing the newly acquired items.

Greene, Zhou and Dwaune Latimer, Jean Friendly Keeper of the African Section, admitted it’s a big job, especially since they agreed to take about 5,000 objects—the largest single acquisition in the Museum’s history. Museum keepers of each section sifted through the material and brought about 900 boxes to Penn’s Museum in late September 2003. “We’re being good citizens. We’re taking as much as we can,” said Zhou, who is coordinating the acquisition for the Museum. “We’re glad to see this collection come into good hands.”

The Civic Center Museum closed in 1994, and housed commercial artifacts from places as diverse as Africa, Oceania, ancient Egypt and the Mediterranean world originally collected for numerous World’s Fairs and international expositions. “When we heard that they were going to close the [Civic Center] Museum, people were very upset,” said Greene. “It’s a shame. It is—or was—a marvelous building.” The City of Philadelphia originally wanted to give Penn’s Museum nearly 18,000 artifacts—the bulk of the Civic Center Museum’s collection. Instead, materials will be dispersed to appropriate museums around the city, including the African-American Museum, the Port of History and the Please Touch Museum.

Some of the highlights of the Museum’s acquisitions are animal skin clothing with elaborate appliqués from circumpolar groups in the Amur River region of Siberia and many pieces from the Philippines. Keepers also selected tribal clothing from what was French Indochina and items excavated from sites in Egypt. Latimer said that many of the objects she picked were the first the Museum had ever acquired from some African countries. Latimer chose 100 to 200 textiles and other articles from Madagascar and beaded baskets from Somalia. Keepers also hand picked a wide selection of musical instruments that will supplement their existing collection. “We wanted to fill the gaps that were crucial to fill,” said Latimer.

Greene said that most of the acquisitions are in good condition, which surprised and delighted staff. There were a couple of live insects in a few boxes and so those containers, as well as all feather and fur items, have been placed in the freezer before storage in the Museum’s basement.

The Museum has secured $125,000 from the City of Philadelphia and will use those funds to hire staff to help with the cataloging and photographing of objects. They aim to be finished with the inventory within two to three years.

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Originally published on January 15, 2004