Penn Museum getting gussied up for first time in a century

A hundred and eighteen years isn’t much when considering the mummies of ancient Egypt, Mayan etchings gouged into stone tablets or human foot prints in what is now Iraq (and what was once known as the royal palatial town of Ur).

Yet that is how long it has been since the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology – better known as the Penn Museum or “the mummy museum” to kids – has undergone worthwhile renovation.

That’s about to change, however, on Nov. 1, when a three-phase renovation program in collaboration with the University of Pennsylvania starts its own archaeological dig-fix-and-refurbish, the first major upgrade since the museum’s founding in 1887. 

“Many of the reasons that it hasn’t been touched is that university museums often focus on the research and teaching mission that they have, first and foremost,” said Dr. Julian Siggers, the Museum’s British-born director since 2012. “While we’ll never lose track of that – the museum conducted 23 digs on six continents last summer alone – the collections here are so extraordinary that we currently have an incredible opportunity to turn our attention to making this museum into a first-class, international attraction.” 

As a young student in the U.K., Siggers always heard of the renowned Penn Museum. As its director, he has witnessed, firsthand, one of the building’s biggest issues: air conditioning. 

“There’s no HVAC, so during a significant portion of the year, the galleries can be unbelievably hot. That limits the visitor experience and puts duress on the objects that we can have on display,” he said. “If they aren’t made of stone, we have to build a climate-controlled case work.”

As soon as Siggers arrived in Philadelphia in 2012, he set about the business of upgrading this world-class collection and hub of archaeological research.

They chose Gluckman Tang Architects due to the firm’s thoughtful provocation and dedication to historic heritage properties. 

“The building itself is one of our most treasured objects,” Siggers said. “They’re very sympathetic to these old buildings and questions as to how to get around them. … You have to get around five buildings that don’t necessarily speak to each other coherently.” 

The museum will remain open during the entire process, as renovation will occur in three separate phases in different portions of the property. The first phase starts Nov. 1 and concludes in the fall of 2019. 

“We want to … bring to the forefront the exciting discoveries that the museum makes almost weekly – both in the excavated fields, and in our labs,” he said. “Let’s get that in front of the public so that they can see the dynamism of discovery.” 

Beyond all renovations to the Penn Museum – better lighting systems, clearer sightlines, remodeled collections, updated galleries and new elevators and bathrooms – Siggers promised that the deeply beloved space will retain every ounce of its longstanding charm.

“The joy of being here will remain. We will work with the vernacular of the architecture, the different design patterns that reverberate throughout the buildings, and bring it all into the present. We want to open previously closed spaces. We want to bring in the light.”

Siggers said an ever-changing sense of art history and new interpretations of the exhibitions necessitated the retelling of ancient stories. 

“We are discovering new things all the time, and the technology has so greatly advanced. The time is ripe for this,” he said.

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