A Brief History of Penn

3 mins read

Alessandro Pezzati reflects on Penn’s past, from its famed digs in Ur and its glory days as a collecting museum, through its struggle in the Great Depression, to its post-war rise and rise.

The founding of the University of Pennsylvania Museum in the 1880s was part of the great wave of institution-building that took place in the United States after the American Civil War. It was an outgrowth of the rising prominence of the new country, and its belief in the ideals of progress and manifest destiny. The 1876 Centennial Exposition, held in Philadelphia, introduced America as a new industrial world power, and showcased the city as a centre of American culture and industry.

The United States, however, still lagged behind Europe in universities and museums, as well as architecture and the arts. The new wealth created after the Civil War gave incentive to philanthropy as a means of earning social recognition, and many wealthy and civic-minded Americans thus turned their attention to cultural life and institutions.

Philadelphia was at the centre of the industrial and cultural ethos of the times. It was known for its manufacturing, railroads, and commerce, but also for its institutions of learning, such as the American Philosophical Society, the Academy of Natural Sciences, and the University of Pennsylvania. The latter, though founded in the middle of the 18th century, was undergoing a renaissance under Provost William Pepper, a physician and medical professor, and under his leadership, the institution was transformed into a modern university. When, in 1887, he was approached to help send an archaeological expedition to Mesopotamia, he leapt at the prospect.

The impetus for the project came from Rev John Punnett Peters, at the time a Professor of Semitics at the University, who had advocated for an American role in the archaeology of the Near East. In 1887, after enlisting the aid of Edward White Clark, a Philadelphia banker, he approached Pepper and other prominent Philadelphia men to finance the endeavour.

The group promised to fund the fieldwork, and the University resolved that ‘all finds which can be exported are to … become the property of the University of Pennsylvania, provided the said University furnish suitable accommodations for the same in a fire-proof building…’

In 1889, while the first expedition to the ancient Sumerian city of Nippur was underway, Pepper moved to establish a formal Department of Archaeology and Paleontology at the University. A fund-raising entity, named the University Archaeological Association, but independent of the University, was also formed.

The expedition to Nippur set a precedent for the growth of the Museum’s collections. Though the Museum was always eager to obtain objects by donation or purchase, a distinguishing factor between it and many other museums is that so many of its collections were acquired through fieldwork and are well-documented. Field research has always been important at the Museum, even when the major goal of an expedition was to bring back artefacts.

The Museum rises

The curators and board members were constantly seeking out new collections. In its first two decades, while continually struggling to pay its bills, the Museum brought in more objects than it could properly catalogue. The continuous collecting forced the Museum to think about a permanent building. In 1889, it occupied space in the University’s new Library building. The Museum soon took over much of the building, but space was still lacking and some collections were stored and displayed in various other buildings around campus. Plans for a museum building began soon after, in 1892, at the behest of Sara Yorke Stevenson, who became the first curator of the Egyptian and Mediterranean sections, and one of the first of the many formidable ladies in the history of the Museum.

In 1894, Pepper obtained land from the City of Philadelphia to erect the ‘Free Museum of Science and Art.’ The new name of the Museum reflected that it would be open to the public at no charge (it eventually began to charge admission, but not until 1987), and was also meant to appeal to the politicians and citizens of Philadelphia. This name never caught on, however, and the institution was soon called informally ‘The University Museum,’ a name it adopted officially in 1913. The name was changed twice again in the 1980s and 1990s, and finally came to be called the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

A grand structure was envisioned, to be built in sections as money became available, consisting of three domes and a series of courtyards in front and back. The first section opened in 1899. Built mainly of brick, the architecture of the building is nominally Northern Italian Renaissance, blended with eclectic elements to create a unique style. It is embellished with decorative motifs, including glass mosaics under the eaves designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany (son of the founder of the famous Tiffany Store beloved of Holly Golightly) and Alexander Stirling Calder, father of Alexander Calder, the inventor of the mobile sculpture. Additions to the building were erected in 1915, 1926, and 1929, including the famous Harrison Rotunda and Auditorium, which boasts the largest unsupported masonry floor-dome in the world.

This article is an extract from the full article published in World Archaeology Issue 30. Click here to subscribe

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