University Museum Director Jeremy Sabloff found his life’s path through an undergraduate anthropology course at Penn. Now, after an extraordinarily productive decade at the museum’s helm, he is ready to head back to the classroom. By John Prendergast


It had to have been fate.
As a Penn undergraduate in the early 1960s casting about for a major, Jeremy Sabloff C’64 was instructed to try a course in anthropology by his advisor, who told him it was, far and away, “the best department in the College.” It turned out that the course, Introduction to Archaeology, was co-taught by two giants in the field—anthropologist-essayist-poet Loren Eiseley (“a magnificent lecturer”) and Froelich Rainey, the museum’s longtime director. “I ended up majoring in anthropology and spending much of my time down at the museum,” Sabloff recalls. “Basically, I’ve always felt that Penn kind of set me on my life’s way—so I had incredibly positive feelings about it.”

After receiving his doctorate at Harvard, Sabloff went on to academic positions there and at the University of Utah, the University of New Mexico, and the University of Pittsburgh. His field work has focused on the Maya civilization, and his other research interests include archaeological theory and method and the history of American archaeology, as well as the nature of ancient civilizations. A member of the National Academy of Sciences, Sabloff has written Excavations at Seibal: Ceramics, The Cities of Ancient Mexico, and The New Archaeology and the Ancient Maya; he has also co-authored A History of American Archaeology; A Reconnaissance of Cancuen, Peten, Guatemala; Ancient Civilizations: The Near East and Mesoamerica; Cozumel: Late Maya Settlement Patterns, and The Ancient Maya City of Sayil.

In 1994, Sabloff was named director of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (a position endowed by Charles K. Williams II Gr’78 Hon’97), succeeding Robert H. Dyson Jr. as museum head. He had already served as department chair at the Universities of New Mexico and Pittsburgh, but still had his doubts about moving into an administrative post—which his attachment to the University and its museum helped assuage, he says.

Sabloff’s return came close on the heels of that of another alum with a soft spot for the museum. Dr. Judith Rodin CW’66 had been elected Penn’s president, but not yet inaugurated, when Sabloff was interviewing for the directorship. He remembers being impressed that Rodin wanted to interview him herself, an indication of her high regard for the museum.

“I found it particularly attractive coming back to Penn—a sense of coming full circle—and particularly to this museum, which I think is one of the great museums in the world of its kind and which I had particularly warm feelings for,” he says. “And I think what was exciting for me was to come back and find a university that was much stronger and which has grown stronger before my eyes in the past decade.”

Certainly, the University Museum has been a full participant in that growing strength. Under Sabloff’s direction, the museum’s annual expenditures have nearly doubled, from about $8.3 million in 1995 to $16 million in 2003; non-curatorial staff increased from 95 to 120; and its endowment rose from $36.7 million in 1996 to $52.2 million last year. Scholarship, field research, and public programming have increased as well. In particular, the past decade has seen a major improvement in the preservation of the museum’s perishable collections and in its overall facilities, through the construction of the Mainwaring Wing for Collections Storage and Study and associated improvements, completed in 2002. Sabloff has also overseen the initial fundraising and first phase of construction on a project to renovate and modernize the rest of the museum’s buildings, constructed from 1899 through the 1970s.

After serving two five year terms as director of the museum, Sabloff declined the offer to sign on for a third stint when his current term expires in June. Late last year, he talked about his decision to step down, changes in the field of archaeology and anthropology and how they have affected research and programming, and the museum’s role on campus and in the world—and why it matters more than ever.

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2004 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 02/27/04

Full Circle
By John Prendergast
Photography by Candace diCarlo

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