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Penn Museum Redesign Aims Beyond Academics

Penn Museum | The New York Times

By Jon Hurdle

Originally appeared in The New York Times.


PHILADELPHIA — Penn Museum, a venerable collector of antiquities, is opening revamped galleries and rebranding as a more public institution after more than a century of focusing on academic research.

The museum, formally called the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology, has been open to the public since its founding in 1887, but it was mainly used by researchers and academics. That started to change in 2012, when a new director made it a mission to be more accessible to everyone; it has seen 180,000 visitors a year in the last several years. Now, 10,000 square feet of galleries have been redesigned to rehouse some of the museum’s greatest treasures and provide fresh interpretations of its exhibits from around the world.

Hundreds of objects from its collection of almost one million will go on public display for the first time when the new galleries open, on Saturday.

The museum has also expanded a program in which immigrants and refugees guide visitors through collections that represent their native cultures. Guides from Africa, Mexico and Central America have been added to those from Iraq and Syria.

Although new prominence is given to the museum’s best-known artifact, the monumental Sphinx of Rameses II, in a renewed entrance hall, the Egyptian statue is just feet away from an alcove that houses two humble pairs of moccasins worn by the indigenous people of Florida and Quebec during the 19th century. On another wall, an array of 10 artifacts representing the collection’s cultures includes an inscribed Peruvian stone from 1109 B.C.

“The collection is too good for it not to be a public museum,” Julian Siggers, the museum’s director, said in an interview. “This is the first time when you will really be able to see how we’ve opened this museum up, deliberately targeting it for public engagement.”


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