It’s a funny concept that an archaeological museum can get too old, but that was the case for 1887 founded University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology when it started large-scale renovations back in 2017.
Part of the Building Transformation Project, the Penn Museum is slated to update 70 percent of its museum, a long-term plan that does not have an overall confirmed end date. Driven out of necessity, the project was to protect the artifacts from ground shock caused by construction on a $1.5 billion pavilion for the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.
However, the museum has gone many steps further than mere preservation and are envisioning a new state-of-the-art building in the hopes of attracting new generations to come. The project includes a number of gallery renovations, including the Egypt and Nubia Galleries which have open dates for a behind-the-scenes exhibition next month for viewers to see the continual plans for the spaces.
While the Egypt (Sphinx) Gallery – which contains the largest Egyptian Sphinx in the Western Hemisphere – is currently closed for conservation, the Egypt (Mummies) Gallery remains open for public viewing. In addition, the The Mexico & Central America Gallery and Africa Galleries are closed for renovations that include general reimaginations to the space and displays, new floors, lighting and air conditioning. Both of these galleries are set to reopen in the Fall 2019.
Also set to open this fall is Harrison Auditorium which is undergoing renovations, including restorations to its Art Deco seats for the purposes of preservation and comfort. Spearheaded by architectural firm, Gluckman Tang, updates to the Coxe Memorial wing have a cost total of nearly $22 million.
Even with the number of spaces closed for renovations, visitors can still visit a number of galleries. This includes the Middle East Gallery, which opened last April as the first finished space of the renovations project.
“We’re making a museum that’s going to be able to provide a much better experience in terms of understandability, accessibility but also in terms of comfort,” said Tom Stanley, who has been with the museum for eight years as its public relations and social media manager.
In an effort to increase accessibility and comfort levels, the museum will be installing more air conditioning, from 21 percent to 79 percent of the museum by the project’s end, according to Stanley. No small feat for a building that is well over a century old.
Stanley explained that the attendance at the museum has been on a “slow uptick” for a handful of years and the closing of the aforementioned galleries has not caused a “tremendous dip.” Yet, a cosmetic makeover to the building also compliments the added programming for families and adults in recent years.
“At its core it’s a research institution and always has been, but we’ve become you know we’ve grown up a more public facing over the last decade or so,” explained Stanley, who hosts Penn Museum’s latest online video series called “Dig In!”
From the Daily Dig where an expert explains a specific artifact to visitors for 15 minutes at 1 p.m. to bimonthly Crawl Out Thursdays for evening parties that benefit different community parities, the Penn Museum has taken a similar approach to other museums in Philadelphia to engage different demographics.
“We have this cultural gem, right here, that’s accessible for families and seniors and you know everybody is welcome here and that’s really important,” said Jill DiSanto, Penn Museum’s public relations director. “You don’t have to have a PhD to be walking around, you could be just anyone and come here and have a great experience.”
Adding onto that sentiment, Stanley explained that the museum is “for the adventurous Philadelphians who is willing to go a few steps beyond the museum isle on the Ben Franklin Parkway.”