It’s simple in this online age to find information about ancient objects. But back in the 1950s and 60s, archaeologists and anthropologists had to rely solely on their wits—at least, they did during the weekly half-hour television show, “What in the World?”
This Peabody Award-winning program was created by former Penn Museum Director (and host) Froelich Rainey, and ran from 1951 until 1965. On the show, Rainey presented several unidentified objects to a panel of experts who were asked to guess the object’s identity, age and use. The audience knew the object’s history beforehand, and during the show, witnessed the reasoned, critical thinking of experts—even if they sometimes came to the wrong conclusion. After the experts guessed, Rainey revealed the object’s true identity. The show also featured special guests, including, most notably, actor and collector Vincent Prince. While only four episodes of the show have survived, luckily for audiences, the episode with Price is one of them.
Even if you’ve never seen the show, you can check out the related interactive installation created by multidisciplinary artist Pablo Helguera as part of the citywide Philagrafika contemporary art festival. The exhibit, which runs through April 11 at the Penn Museum, features a recreated set from the famous program, Museum artifacts and a series of videos designed to provide, as Helguera puts it, “an unauthorized biography” of the 123-year-old Museum. On Feb. 28 from 2 to 3:30 p.m., Museum Director Richard Hodges and a panel of experts will participate in a program that recreates the spirit of the original show. For more information, go to www.penn.museum. To watch old episodes of the television show, go to www.archive.org/details/UPMAA_films and click on “What in the World.”
For more information on this and other historical events at Penn, visit the University Archives at www.archives.upenn.edu.
Originally published on February 18, 2010