University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (Penn Museum)


The Penn Museum—officially the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology—originated in 1887 through the combined efforts of university scholars, administrators, and Philadelphia philanthropists. Created as part of a broader movement to expand, modernize, and professionalize the university, throughout its history the museum also performed a public role of bringing ancient and far away cultures to Philadelphia for both academic research and spectacular display. Although always an independent entity, the museum also served the mission of the affiliated university through its roles in scholarly innovation, collegiate education, and outreach to the public. In the twenty-first century, as museums and the disciplines of archaeology and anthropology became more critical about the ways they represented nonwhite and non-Western cultures, the Penn Museum reconsidered the form and content of its dual academic and public roles.

A black and white portrait of William Platt Pepper
University of Pennsylvania Provost William Platt Pepper, shown in this 1902 portrait, funded an expedition to the ancient city of Nippur conducted between 1889 and 1900. The artifacts recovered on this journey were displayed in the university library and formed the basis of the Penn Museum. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)

The idea for the museum originated in 1887, when John Punnett Peters (1852-1921), a professor of Hebrew at the University of Pennsylvania, persuaded University Provost William Pepper (1843-98) to fund an expedition to the Sumerian city of Nippur in modern-day Iraq. In agreeing to do so, Pepper stipulated that anything Peters collected would be held at the university in a new museum. The museum, the expedition, and the scholarship that resulted combined anthropology—the study of man, his origins, and the evolution of human culture—with archaeology, a field rooted in the search for evidence to verify Greek mythology, the Bible, and other founding myths of Western, Christian civilization.

The museum created to house the fruits of the Sumerian expedition and other collections had its first home in the Furness Library on the university’s new West Philadelphia campus from 1890 until 1899. It then moved to its permanent home in a stylishly eclectic building designed by a team led by Wilson Eyre (1858-1944). Although the university held the collections and faculty members often led expeditions, funding for the museum and its collecting efforts came primarily from independent groups like the Babylonian Exploration Fund, the Egypt Exploration Society, and the University Archaeological Association. These organizations were usually headed by prominent, wealthy Philadelphia philanthropists who continued to be a key source of income throughout the museum’s history.

Museum’s Dual Purposes

The institution’s original name, the Free Museum of Art and Science, reflected its interdisciplinary and dual purposes. For researchers, the museum housed and displayed artifacts of human culture as scientific resources. At the time, anthropology and archaeology were not the interpretive, liberal arts fields that they later became, but were disciplines dedicated to systematic classification and scientific observation. However, while scholars and researchers used the collections for science, public displays also enriched the museum experience for visitors and allowed those who felt welcome to demonstrate their elite aesthetic taste. As was typical of endeavors in anthropology and archaeology, the museum sought to demonstrate both similarities and differences among diverse communities. Many cultures were collected under one roof, but their arrangement reinforced ideological hierarchies by presenting an inevitable march of human progress and creating contrasts between supposedly primitive crafts and civilized tastes. In Philadelphia, this was reflected in curatorial and architectural choices that saw ethnological artifacts collected from indigenous people arranged on the lowest floor and archaeological collections of Greek, Roman, and Babylonian civilizations on the floors above. It tied a literal, physical march from bottom to top to an intellectual and ideological one.

In 1913, the museum officially changed its name to the University Museum, a step in a gradual evolution of the institution’s relationship to the University of Pennsylvania and a sign of the shifting composition of the Board of Managers. The university always housed the collections, making them available to staff and students for teaching and research, but the museum operated independently. Curators and leaders of expeditions sometimes, but not always, had appointments as faculty members, and likewise the Department of Anthropology sometimes, but not always, operated out of the museum. Although officially separate, administrative control over museum matters like hiring and firing shifted to the university in the early twentieth century—coinciding with the name change. Financial contributions from the university began in the 1930s, and by the 1980s Penn exclusively appointed the museum’s Board of Overseers. While administrative and financial control shifted, the hybrid public-academic nature of the museum remained constant throughout its history..

A color photograph of the main entrance of the University of Pennsylvania Museum. The photograph is taken through the iron gates and shows a formal garden with hedge rows and a reflecting pond with a stone bench in the foreground. Cherry trees in bloom flanking the front door.
The rapidly expanding museum collections necessitated the construction of a dedicated display space in the late 1890s. The new building, designed by a team led by architect Wilson Eyre, opened in 1899 and boasted gardens, artifact laboratories, and lecture spaces in addition to galleries. (Photograph by E. Mencher for Visit Philadelphia)

In the first half of the twentieth century, as the museum and the fields of anthropology, ethnology, and archaeology grew, so did the museum. Ethnographic expeditions, excavations of ancient artifacts, and acquisitions through purchase grew the collections and programs of research and display. While the research had academic value, these exotic objects also came from areas of the world that were colonized by Western empires—and thus were embedded in problematic politics recognized only later by most American curators and scholars. Those politics periodically came to the fore, especially during the breakup of empires in the mid-twentieth century. In Latin America, where the museum conducted work throughout the twentieth century, local interest in heritage, tourist dollars, and the struggle for post-colonial power drove governments to control archaeological research more tightly over time. This impacted the intellectual trajectories of anthropology and archaeology, and it led expeditions like those of the University Museum to become somewhat more collaborative.

The Louis Shotridge Era

In the 1920s and 1930s, one of the most important curators at the museum—although never a professor at the university—was Louis Shotridge (1882-1935), a Tlingit Indian from the Pacific Northwest. Conducting salvage ethnographies, Shotridge collected and documented languages and traditions at risk of being destroyed by settler colonialism and government policies that criminalized indigenous culture and decimated native populations. On the one hand, Shotridge assured that some part of indigenous culture—in some cases his own culture—would survive. On the other hand, he knew the institution where he worked took sacred objects and sterilized them, that it interpreted indigenous people as primitive savages, and that it expected nonwhite scholars like himself to assimilate themselves and their scholarship into the authoritative voice of academic institutions.

After World War II, old tensions between white, Western scholars and post-colonial or third-world nations arose, but they were sometimes addressed in new ways. Research continued to be largely generated and validated by elite European and American institutions with systems of knowledge and hierarchical classification that changed little from the nineteenth century, but museums also became more dedicated to leaving artifacts in their places of origin so they might be interpreted and appreciated by the communities from which they came as well as being used in scholarship.

A black and white photograph of Froelich G. Rainey standing in front of a colossal ancient bust of Ramses the second of Egypt. The statue wears a crown adorned with a rearing cobra.
Anthropologist Froelich Gladstone Rainey served as director of the Penn Museum from 1947 to 1976. During his tenure the museum enacted the Pennsylvania Declaration, which condemned the purchase of artifacts without a pedigree and called for the return of looted items. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)

At the same time, the black market for antiquities, fostered by the poverty of so-called third world nations and by the exploding value of artifacts in commercial markets, also challenged museums in the post-World War II era. In 1970, the University Museum under director Froelich Rainey (1907-92) influenced acquisitions policies throughout the museum field by issuing the Pennsylvania Declaration, which pledged to end the purchase of artifacts without “a pedigree—that is information about the different owners of the objects, place of origin, legality of export, and other data useful in each individual case.” The statement called attention to the complex question of ownership: Was the object obtained “legally” or was there proof that it had been looted? Ultimately, in addition to restricting new acquisitions, the museum returned objects to countries including Italy, Turkey, and Peru. In 2008, the museum created the Penn Cultural Heritage Center to address related issues.

Repatriating Collected Objects

The U.S. Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) enacted in 1990 provided the most effective and widely enforced mechanism to address the concerns of indigenous people in the United States with regard to cultural heritage. For the University Museum, between 1990 and 2016, this federal law led to twenty-five tribes successfully filing claims to have human remains and other religious objects returned to them from the museum’s collections.

The University Museum—which by 1996 was rebranded as the Penn Museum to make its institutional affiliation clearer—also confronted the complex issues of who should tell the stories of objects on display. Historically, Western museums presented narratives of hierarchical evolution and inevitable progress that either demonstrated continuities between ancient and modern societies or juxtaposed “primitive” and “civilized” cultures in ways that justified colonialism and racism. By the twenty-first century, however, museums like Penn’s sought to generate more understanding and appreciation of diversity and inclusion even though white, Western academic standards of science and objectivity tended to remain the arbiters of knowledge and worth.

A black and white photograph of a man holding a mask, which a young boy is painting. Another young boy stands nearby and watches.
As attitudes towards other cultures shifted, the museum moved to incorporate Native American voices into its educational program. This 1972 photograph shows Jimmy Johnny, a representative from the Salish Tribe of British Columbia, teaching two boys how to paint a traditional Salish mask. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)

In 2014, a reimagining of the Penn Museum’s North American gallery caught up with trends toward sharing authority for exhibit development with indigenous people. “Native American Voices” challenged old, racist narratives by representing native people as alive and thriving while also acknowledging how American and European colonialism decimated these communities and their cultures. For this exhibit, museum curators consulted with indigenous leaders, which resulted in a richer, more multivocal, and inclusive exhibit. Nevertheless, the museum clearly retained authority.

Other exhibit strategies focused on bringing more diverse voices and more relevant themes into the museum’s interpretation of its archaeological collections. Reinstalled Middle East galleries opened in 2018 with a focus on urbanization, and plans called for future renovations, restorations, and reinstallations of the Africa and Mesoamerica galleries, the Harrison Auditorium, and the Egyptian wing. A Global Guides program, initiated in 2018, incorporated the varied perspectives of contemporary Philadelphians who were immigrants and refugees from the areas of ancient cities excavated by the museum. Plans for renovation of the museum’s 1899 building, scheduled to continue through 2021, sought to create an increasingly visitor-centered institution with improvements including climate control, better way-finding, and more elevators.

In the twenty-first century, the Penn Museum faced the challenge of how to use old collections, many of which were collected in exploitative, colonial contexts, to tell new stories that incorporated communities and perspectives that the museum historically marginalized. Although hindered by its own history and the colonial history of its disciplines, new strategies were making this museum more engaged, and visitorship, especially for special events that showcased diverse cultural traditions, reflected that. William Pepper’s idea to create a museum that served both the university and the people of Philadelphia was being realized in new ways for a new era. Indeed, the institution whose mission was to explore “the human story: who we are and where we come from” was gradually and powerfully beginning to reassess who we are, who gets to speak for us, and where we get to do so.

Mabel Rosenheck is a writer, lecturer, and historian in Philadelphia. She received her Ph.D. in Media and Cultural Studies from Northwestern University and now works at the Wagner Free Institute of Science and elsewhere. (Author information current at time of publication.) 

Copyright 2019, Rutgers University


William Platt Pepper

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

University of Pennsylvania Provost William Platt Pepper, shown in this 1902 portrait, funded an expedition to the ancient city of Nippur conducted between 1889 and 1900. The artifacts recovered on this journey were displayed in the university library and formed the basis of the Penn Museum. Pepper attended the University of Pennsylvania's medical school and later taught morbid anatomy and clinical medicine at the school. He served as provost from 1881 until 1894. In addition to his work with the museum, Pepper chartered Philadelphia's first free public library in 1891, which grew into the multi-branch Free Library of Philadelphia system. The library opened in 1894 in Philadelphia City Hall.

Furness Library, University of Pennsylvania

Wikimedia Commons

The then-new Furness Library on the University of Pennsylvania’s West Philadelphia Campus provided the first home for the Penn Museum’s collections in the 1890s. The university moved to this location in 1872 from its original home in Center City due to rising attendance and the need for more space, as well as a desire to provide a more bucolic atmosphere for their students. Architect Frank Furness (1839-1921) was commissioned to design the library for the new campus in 1889. Furness, one of the city’s most renowned architects of the era, created a cathedral-like space with vaulted ceilings and sky lights to allow ample natural light into the library’s reading room. A movable wall allowed for expansion of the stacks, housed in a fire-resistant iron chamber at the building’s south end.

The library, celebrated for its innovative and ornate design at its completion in 1890, soon fell out of fashion and was seen as an outdated embarrassment by 1899, when the museum collections left for their permanent home in a purpose-built space on South Street. The university never utilized Furness’s expansion plan, instead opting to build a new wing onto the south face in a more toned-down style in 1916. Plans in the 1930s called for Furness’s building to be clad entirely in the demure Collegiate Gothic style used in the design of other buildings on campus, but this plan ultimately fell through. After the university stacks relocated to the Van Pelt Library in the mid-twentieth century, the university planned to demolish the building. Spared from this fate by a historic preservation campaign which culminating in architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) praising Furness’s design, the library again came to be seen as a masterpiece of late Victorian-era architecture. The building was registered on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972 and became a National Historic Landmark in 1985. It was restored in the late 1980s and rededicated as the Jerome and Ann Fisher Fine Arts Library in 1991. In 2019, the building housed an architecture studio and a public art museum in addition to the arts library.

Museum Gardens and Entrance

After a nine-year stay in the Furness Library, the collections of the Penn Museum relocated to a new dedicated building constructed on South Street. A team of architects led by Wilson Eyre (1859-1944) designed the building, which included lecture halls, artifacts laboratories, offices, and an Italian-style formal courtyard and gardens, shown in this photograph, in addition to the public galleries to display the rapidly-growing collections. Eyre’s design incorporated architectural influences from around the world as a symbolic nod to the international collections held within. The building’s first phase was completed in 1899, and subsequent expansions closely followed the original design from 1896. The Great Depression halted construction in 1929, leaving only four segments of the massive planned complex completed. When construction resumed in the late 1960s with the addition of the Academic Wing, architectural firm Mitchell & Giurgola chose a contrasting modernist design instead of resuming Eyre’s design. Later additions drew on both the modernist and Eyre’s eclecticism to blend these two styles, creating a more harmonious overall design. (Photograph by E. Mencher for Visit Philadelphia

Relocating the Sphinx, 1927

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

The Penn Museum houses the largest sphinx statue in the Western Hemisphere. British archaeologist Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie (1853-1942) unearthed the thirteen-ton statue near the Ptah Temple at Memphis, Egypt in late 1912. The statue dates to Egypt’s Nineteenth Dynasty and was created as tribute to Pharaoh Ramses II, one of the most powerful rulers of the New Kingdom. Although the head of the statue suffered substantial erosion from wind-blown sand, the body, buried beneath the dunes for much of its existence, survived remarkably well. Petrie offered the figure to museum director Dr. George Byron Gordon (1870-1924), who accepted the colossal addition to the museum’s collection. Nearly a year later, the sphinx finally arrived in Philadelphia after a costly transport by rail and sea. It resided in the museum’s front gardens for three years, exposing it to the elements, before it was moved to a temporary location inside the museum’s main entrance in 1919. The sphinx relocated again in 1926 to the newly-constructed Coxe Wing, designed to house the museum’s Egyptian collections. This photograph shows workers carefully removing the sphinx from the main hall of the museum for this move. The statue was returned to its position in the main entrance in 2019 while the Coxe Wing underwent extensive renovations.

Preparing Masks for Display, 1951

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

The Penn Museum’s collections expanded over the twentieth century to incorporate artifacts from around the world. In this 1951 photo, museum staff member Gloria Shihadeh Swift cleans masks from New Guinea for display. These fragile masks, made of cowrie shell, wood, plant fibers, feathers, and other organic materials, are unique to the family who created them, incorporating totemic figures and representations of their tribal ancestors into their designs. They are not worn on the face but hang on the outside of homes or on a wicker frame called a tumbuan as part of ceremonial dance costumes.

Gloria Shihadeh Smith (1924-2013) began her career with the Penn Museum in 1945, one year after her graduation from Wilson College. She remained part of the staff until her retirement in 1989. Despite what this photograph depicts, Shihadeh Smith did not typically work with artifacts but served in administrative positions, beginning as a secretary before moving on to administrative assistant and finally the assistant financial vice president in 1983. However, Shihadeh Smith often served as a model for museum photo shoots, including one series where she donned the delicate gold jewelry of Queen Puabi of Ur. The jewelry, one of the museum’s most precious collections, dates to around 2600 BCE.

Teaching Salish Tribal Art

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

In the name of scientific research, the Penn Museum collected a number of sacred artifacts and even human remains from Native American tribes in its early decades. In the 1960s, many of these tribes renewed the fight for their civil rights, their religious rights, and their rights to property that was stolen from them by American colonial and academic institutions. Over time, these social movements and accompanying shifts in the academic world changed the climate around the collection and display of anthropological material in museums and policies changed.

By the 1970s, the Penn Museum began to enlist members of the represented tribes to teach the history and traditional crafts of their people to visitors. This 1972 photograph shows a Salish man from British Columbia, Jimmy Johnny, teaching young boys how to paint a Salish mask. By the end of the twentieth century, a growing repatriation movement culminated in the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), enacted in 1990. Twenty-five tribes successfully filed claims under this law for the repatriation of human remains and religious objects held by the museum between 1990 and 2016. In 2014, the museum’s North American galleries were restructured to share authority with the native tribes represented within and to acknowledge both the decimation of tribes under colonialism and their continued survival into the twenty-first century.

Froelich G. Rainey, 1975

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

Froelich Gladstone Rainey (1907-92), an anthropologist specializing in Alaskan prehistory, was appointed director of the Penn Museum in 1947. Under his leadership, the museum enacted new guidelines to prevent looting of heritage sites and return artifacts which may have been looted in the past. These guidelines, called the Pennsylvania Declaration, were announced in 1970 and soon adopted by museums around the world. In the years that followed, the museum returned artifacts to several countries including Turkey and Peru which were acquired through unethical means. In 2008, the museum created the Penn Cultural Heritage Center to address issues related to the Pennsylvania Declaration and the provenance of its artifacts.

In addition to this industry changing achievement, Rainey also served as a Professor of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. He established Expedition Magazine, a periodical mailed to members of the museum, still published in 2019, and developed and hosted “What in the World?,” an early television program that aired from 1950 to 1966, broadcast to a national audience in its final three years. Rainey retired from the museum in 1976 to direct the Land Preservation Fund for the Nature Conservatory. This photograph shows him in 1975 in front of a colossal bust of Ramses II unearthed at Abydos in 1967. Rainey relocated to England in 1977 to focus on writing and remained there until his death in 1992.

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Related Reading

Conn, Steven. Museums and American Intellectual Life, 1876-1926. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Danien, Elin C. Guide to the Mesoamerican Gallery at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 2002.

Madeira, Percy Chester. Men in Search of Man: The First Seventy-Five Years of the University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1964.

Pezzati, Alessandro. Adventures in Photography: Expeditions of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 2002.

Quick, Jennifer, ed. Magnificent Objects from the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 2004.

Silverman, David. Searching for Ancient Egypt: Art, Architecture, and Artifacts from the University of Pennsylvania Museum. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1997.

Horne, Lee, ed. Introduction to the Collections of the University Museum. Philadelphia: The University Museum, 1985.

Wegner, Josef and Jennifer Houser Weger. The Sphinx That Traveled to Philadelphia The Story of the Colossal Sphinx in the Penn Museum. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015.

Williams, Lucy Fowler, et al., eds. Native American Voices on Identity, Art, and Culture : Objects of Everlasting Esteem. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 2005.

Winegrad, Dilys P. Through Time, Across Continents: A Hundred Years of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University Museum. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 1993.

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