Penn Museum is one of those incredible treasures in Philadelphia that you’ve probably walked, driven, or ridden past a million times but never known was there. Maybe you've gone to Franklin Field in late April to enjoy the Penn Relays or to watch the Penn Quakers on a brisk Saturday and wondered what that mysterious gated structure is with the magnificent double doors and fancy pond with the fish is.
Well, the team at the New Penn Museum is on a mission for change. In an innovative PR campaign, they aim to share their wealth of artifacts and contemporary stories as they move from university museum to public museum space. On November 16 the museum premiered phase one of the massive reimagining and reconstruction project, which culminates in 10,000 square feet of gallery spaces and updates in the presentation and tone of the collections.
With arms wide open
The museum is bigger, brighter, and more welcoming. With the tagline "America’s Museum of Ancient Worlds," it immediately invokes a more inviting, people-friendly tone. One of the most important aspects of the transformation is the idea of empowering native, immigrant, and refugee voices to speak on behalf of their cultures through art, community talks, and special presentations. Transformations include the Africa Galleries, with installations from contemporary artists from Africa and the Americas, the Mexico and Central American Galleries, the largest collection, with approximately 300,000 objects. The Harrison Auditorium, constructed in 1915, has been restored to its original splendor while also receiving accessibility and technology upgrades. The renovations of all of the galleries include warm colors, interactive electronic displays, natural light, and clear descriptions of the pieces on display.
Don’t forget your roots
It is fitting that the reinvention highlights one of the original and most magnificent artifacts, the Sphinx of Ramses II (1293-1185 BCE), which arrived at the museum in 1913. Excavated by the renowned archaeologist W.M. Flinders Petrie, it is the largest Sphinx in the western hemisphere and has been one of Philadelphia's top cultural attractions since its debut here.
The Main Entrance/Sphinx Gallery also bolsters the addition of the special exhibit of the 10 collections from around the globe and across human history and a keyhole exhibit that will rotate and highlight special pieces of chosen collections.
Curator of the new African Galleries, Tukufu Zuberi, Ph.D, professor of sociology and Africana studies at Penn, says, "The galleries are redesigned to [encourage] conversation and to provoke an intellectual curiosity about Africa and Africa's history, but also how we view Africa and why we view it that way." Zuberi and the Africa Galleries tackle the subject of the acquisition of artifacts from Africa and the "Decolonization of the Africa Galleries at Penn Museum."
The Africa Galleries not only represent ancient African kingdoms but also connect the contemporary African diaspora with installations, fashion, and textiles representing artists from Senegal, the United States, South America, and Ghana. The 4,000-square-foot galleries trace the paths of several key objects from their makers in Africa to the museum.
"The Penn Museum is confronting colonialism in an intellectual environment, a place where critique is essential, while considering the ways this kind of cultural material is presented in the 21st century," Zuberi says.
Originally created as “The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology,” the space was created to house and preserve Penn's expansive archaeological expeditions dating back to 1913. Although the Museum will always serve as an important academic resource in the university setting, the New Penn Museum promises to connect the past to the future and to provide diverse opportunities for all communiities to experience the stories and the makers behind the artifacts.
What, Where, When:
The Penn Museum’s renovation is now open to the public. The museum is located on 3260 South St., and is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10am to 5pm. Schedule your visit online or call (215) 898-4000.