BELOW This sphinx of Ramesses II, now the symbol of Penn Museum, occupies the refurbished main entrance hall.

Penn Museum: a museum for the coming decades

The symbol of the new Penn Museum is in the refurbished main entrance hall. On a prominent podium behind the ticket desks sits the Museum’s celebrated sphinx. Richard Hodges reports.


We have had raised at Memphis a colossal sphinx of Ramesses II about 11 feet long, 11 ton weight. The head has been much weathered, the body and inscribed base are perfect, of red granite… Would such a piece as this be acceptable for your Museum?

Sir W M Flinders Petrie to Director George Byron Gordon, 1913

The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology – these days the Penn Museum – was conceived in the late 19th century to bring the world and its past to Philadelphia at the zenith of the Gilded Age. Time has never stopped still here. The Museum has been through several iterations as a place to visit, but never, despite a global pandemic, looked so bright, colourful, and enriching. Whatever the world throws at it, this is the jewel in the crown of this Ivy League university.

Encyclopedic museums, as they are sometimes called, were born of an age of empire and colonisation. As such, inevitably they face significant challenges as diversity and ecology become touchstones of our times. Like its university parent, the Penn Museum with its new logo and facelift is adroitly evolving to work with its many visitors – Philadelphia’s schoolchildren, university students, visitors to this UNESCO World Heritage City, and, of course, academics.

BELOW This sphinx of Ramesses II, now the symbol of Penn Museum, occupies the refurbished main entrance hall.
This sphinx of Ramesses II, now the symbol of Penn Museum, occupies the refurbished main entrance hall.

Founded in 1887, the Museum set out from the beginning to acquire a huge collection thanks to its Philadelphian patrons. Then it went through a volte-face and for several decades became a centre of global archaeological research. Less emphasis was placed on reaching out to students or the city. The galleries were dark, and the cases of packed objects were dimly lit and reminiscent of main street storefronts. Over the past dozen years, however, it has reclaimed its founding purposes and more. Today, many of its galleries have been refashioned for contemporary audiences, and it boasts a modern suite of teaching laboratories used by Penn’s undergraduates. With great African, Near Eastern, Egyptian, Mediterranean, Asian, Oceanian, Mesoamerican, and Native American collections – many of its objects are fully described on the Museum’s website (see box on p.51) – it is one of North America’s great archaeological and anthropological treasures.

Sphinx on the move

The symbol of the new Penn Museum is in the refurbished main entrance hall. On a prominent podium behind the ticket desks sits the Museum’s celebrated sphinx. The sphinx, a lion with a human head, represents the power of the Egyptian king. Carved out of a single block of red granite, quarried at Aswan, the royal titulary of Ramesses II appears along the base of this sphinx. Ramesses II’s son and successor, Merenptah, added his own (hieroglyphic) cartouches on the shoulders after his father’s death. Discovered by legendary Egyptologist Flinders Petrie in his excavations near the Ptah Temple in 1913, the sphinx dates to around 1200 BC, towards the end of the Bronze Age.

The main entrance to the Penn Museum.

The Penn Museum sphinx possesses a perfectly preserved body, but its head and face have weathered over thousands of years. This timeworn countenance embodies the mystique of ancient Egypt. All talk in the past was that the Museum buildings were literally erected around this proud beast. It could never be moved. Well, as part of the Museum’s facelift, it was moved. In June 2019, over several nerve-wracking days, the sphinx was hoisted on to air pallets and then literally pushed and pulled, inch by inch, from its windowless lair in what for decades has been known as ‘Lower Egypt’ into the refurbished main entrance hall.

Penn Museum contains modern teaching facilities, with students here shown examining materials in the artefact laboratories.

The sphinx had been in Lower Egypt since 1928. It arrived in Philadelphia to a fanfare of media interest in October 1913. Weighing close to 15 tons, it was the second largest ancient Egyptian monument ever to come to the New World. Only the obelisk in New York’s Central Park outweighs it. This is the largest Egyptian sphinx in the Western hemisphere and fourth largest sphinx outside Egypt (other colossal sphinxes can be found in Paris, France, and St Petersburg, Russia).

Its passage to Philadelphia belongs to another age. It languished beside the Suez Canal before a German freighter passing from India with dye fruits and goat skins bound for a Philadelphia tannery agreed to deliver it. Docking in south Philadelphia, the next challenge was to get it to what was then known as the University Museum. A huge crane at the Philadelphia and Reading Railway cargo terminal lifted it on to a rail car. With a bit of delay caused by unforeseen events (not least of which was the ongoing 1913 baseball World Series between the Philadelphia Athletics and New York Giants), the granite creature finally arrived at its new home, where it caused a feverish distraction from the Penn–Brown (Ivy League rivals) football game. With dozens of newspaper stories covering the excitement of the sphinx’s arrival, thousands of Philadelphians and visitors from out of town came to see it. For three years, it resided outside in the Museum’s courtyard. The move inside came about as the Museum acquired more treasures from Memphis, thanks to its Coxe-funded expedition. In Lower Egypt, it was to be surrounded by columns, doorways, and windows from the palace of pharaoh Merenptah (c.1213-1203 BC), which was excavated in 1915 to 1919.

Sphinx on the move. It had long been thought
that this 15 ton sculpture could never be moved again, but in 2019 an ingenious set of ramps and some careful pushing and pulling coaxed the beast to its new home.

For decades, the sphinx was a symbol of what Philadelphia taxi-drivers call the ‘mummy museum’. It has presided enigmatically over weddings and parties, hosted in the Museum for more than a century, and, more recently, sleepless nights with hordes of children who sign up for ‘40 Winks with the Sphinx’. Now in its new setting, it radiates the Museum’s will to captivate its audiences from the moment they purchase a ticket.

Pioneering fieldwork around the world

From 1887, the heart of the Museum’s early strategy was a will to assemble collections from great civilisations. The grandiloquence of the Museum’s buildings tacitly made references to a Classical heritage, reinforcing an intent to research globally. These projects and the collections are what makes the Museum’s archives of notebooks, correspondence, and photographs particularly special.

From an extraordinary roll call of projects, I will mention just a few. The year after the foundation of the Museum, an expedition was dispatched to Nippur (in Iraq) to start excavations into the Babylonian civilisation. Organised by John P Peters, the expedition unearthed a library of inscribed cuneiform tablets. These tablets formed the basis of our understanding of the first literate society in the world, the Sumerians. Nippur proved to be the first of hundreds of field projects, many of which continue today.

No less important to the Penn Museum’s future was the joint expedition with the British Museum between 1922 and 1934 to the great Mesopotamian centre of Ur of the Chaldees (also in Iraq). Excavations here, made famous by Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesopotomia, began as an effort to search for the roots of narratives from the Hebrew Bible. Woolley’s huge excavations of the Royal Cemetery garnered worldwide media attention. The tombs, dating to 2650-2550 BC, contained a wealth of objects of gold, lapis lazuli, carnelian, and other semi-precious stones – furnishings reflecting the apogee of the Sumerians. Famous for their outstanding beauty, these objects – in combination with contextual evidence – helped Woolley to create a spellbinding archaeological story about the ancient wealth and privilege surrounding an individual he identified as Queen Puabi.

Excavations at Ur of the Chaldees in the 1920s and 1930s revealed spectacular finds, including those associated with a figure identified as Queen Puabi. Her spectacular crown is visible to the left.

Egypt unsurprisingly captivated the founding fathers of the Museum. As early as the 1890s, the Museum sponsored, as we have seen, Flinders Petrie’s excavations. By 1907, thanks to the generosity of Eckley B Coxe, Jr, the Museum outfitted its own archaeological expeditions. David Randall-MacIver and Leonard Woolley excavated a number of sites in Lower Nubia, including cities, military fortresses, and cemeteries. In addition, Randall-MacIver discovered and identified the unknown Meroitic culture, which inhabited this area from AD 100 to 300. Randall-MacIver’s successor, Clarence S Fisher, a prolific excavator of ancient Egyptian remains, worked at Memphis and Dendereh. In addition to its notable Middle Kingdom collections, the Museum also is known for its magnificent New Kingdom (1539-1075 BC) holdings. From Abydos comes a statue of Sitepehu, an overseer of priests who served under Egypt’s Queen Hatshepsut; from Herakleopolis, a large seated statue of Ramesses II; from Memphis, a relief with the face of a man from the ceremonial palace of Merenptah; and from Thebes, a fragment of the Book of the Dead. Early in the 20th century, expeditions were sent to Nubia. A stela from Buhen, for example, shows a Kushite ruler as the equivalent of an Egyptian ruler and documents the existence of a significant African kingdom long before the Karanga Kingdom of Great Zimbabwe in sub-Saharan Africa or Jenne-Jeno in western Africa. Two statues from Buhen are examples of people from less regal walks of life. One portrays a Nubian individual whose livelihood was that of the specialised occupation of scribe, while the other is of a lower-ranking individual thought to be a gardener.

Minoan pots from Harriet Boyd Hawes’ excavations
at the Bronze Age village of Gournia, Crete.

From its outset, the Museum had its eyes on places bordering the Mediterranean. One of the earliest projects was led by the redoubtable Harriet Boyd Hawes at the Minoan Bronze Age village of Gournia on Crete. Pottery and bronze tools from Hawes’s great excavations are on display in the Greece Gallery. In Italy, the Museum engaged Arthur L Frothingham, Secretary of the American School of Classical Studies in Rome, to excavate spectacular Etruscan warrior tombs at Narçe and Vulci in 1895-1897. An expedition also went to the sprawling Roman colony of Minturnae in Latium, Italy. The result was a remarkable collection of Roman marble busts now in the Rome Gallery.

Much later, in 1950, Rodney Young began excavations at the ancient Phrygian capital of Gordion in central Turkey, which continue today. The ancient city was occupied at various times from the Early Bronze Age into the medieval Seljuk period. It is best known, though, as the Phrygian capital of King Midas in the late 8th century BC. In 1957, with the opening of the huge tumulus and the unearthing of the so-called ‘Tomb of Midas’, the expedition discovered the lavish household belongings – furniture, jewellery, and weapons – of either Midas or, more probably, his father.

In the New World, Robert Burkitt was one of the most colourful characters in the Museum’s history. Legend has it he was recompensed with crates of whisky. Excavating in the jungles of Guatemala, his adventures bring to mind Indiana Jones movies: he faced bandits, disease, and camp destruction by fire. Burkitt excavated for over 20 years (1913-1934) at ancient Maya sites such as Chamá, Chocolá, and Ratinlixul, providing the Museum with remarkable Maya assemblages. Burkitt’s successors continued his fieldwork throughout the remainder of the 20th century. The ancient city of Piedras Negras, deep in the jungle of the Petén, Guatemala, and known for its elaborately carved and well-preserved monuments, was the site of the Museum’s first large-scale excavation of a Maya ruin. Led by J Alden Mason and Linton Satterthwaite, this project lasted from 1931 to 1939.

Due to its inaccessible location, also in the jungles of the Petén, the Maya city of Tikal was only briefly visited by explorers until the Museum organised a large-scale project of excavation and restoration with the assistance of the Guatemalan government (who constructed an airfield nearby to make the project possible). Beginning in 1956, under the successive leadership of Edwin Shook, Robert H Dyson, Jr, and William R Coe, archaeological investigations cleared many of Tikal’s important pyramids and temples, and revealed the dynastic, architectural, and settlement history of one of the most important of all Maya ‘cities’.

Another Museum anthropologist, Ruben E Reina, travelled widely over a number of years among the contemporary Maya living in the Highlands of Guatemala (1950s-1970s). His ethnographic research led to seminal studies on their social organisation and the relationship of technology and culture, especially in the production of pottery. He also directed two archaeological projects in Guatemala and made an ethnohistorical study of the archives of the Indies in Spain to develop a comprehensive view of the Maya people during the time of the Spanish Conquest. No less significant were excavations by William R Coe, Christopher Jones, and Robert J Sharer at Quiriguá, Guatemala (1974-1979) and, more recently, by Sharer at Copán, Honduras (1988-2000), where the complex architectural history of the acropolis was unravelled by tunnelling into the early temples.

Pioneering anthropology

The Museum’s pioneers were also engaged in fostering the discipline of anthropology. Ethnographers were dispatched across the Americas, and to Africa and Oceania; like the archaeologists, they returned with major collections. Spectacular among the Museum’s holdings are Inuit (Eskimo), North-west Coast, Plains, and Hopi artefacts, Guatemalan textiles, South American Amazonian featherwork, and items from sub-Saharan Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) and Sierra Leone, as well as striking bronzes and other objects from the Kingdom of Benin, in west Africa.

This stele was found at the Maya site of Caracol, Belize, in 1951. The light projected on to the stone reveals the detail of a beautifully depicted figure.

George Byron Gordon, who became Museum Director (1910-1927), travelled to Alaska in 1905 and 1907 to study and collect artefacts among the Eskimo. The linguist Edward Sapir, one of the founders of the discipline, began his career at the Museum and in 1909 visited the Uintah reservation in Utah to study the language of the Utes. The indefatigable research conducted among various nations of north-eastern North America between 1908 and 1950 by Frank G Speck, founder of the Anthropology Department at the University of Pennsylvania, helped preserve vital information about many tribes of this area. He studied and worked with the Penobscot in Maine, the Naskapi in Labrador, and the Iroquois in New York, as well as many others. In 1912, the Museum appointed Louis Shotridge, a native Tlingit from south-eastern Alaska, as Assistant Curator in the American Section. Shotridge took extended trips between 1915 and 1932 to collect artefacts and information among his own and neighbouring people in Alaska and British Columbia.

Material from Central America includes this replica of the spectacular Margarita Panel, which was discovered by a Penn team at Copán in the 1990s. The original panel is painted stucco plaster and remains at its temple findspot, 60ft underground.

Another pioneer, Edgar B Howard, explored for evidence of Palaeolithic remains in North America. His groundbreaking excavations at Clovis, New Mexico (1933-1937), and in Eden Valley, Wyoming (1940-1941), established his reputation as one of the discoverers of the original inhabitants of the continent. No less influential was J Alden Mason, Curator of the American Section from 1926 to 1955, who undertook archaeological, ethnographic, and linguistic expeditions throughout North, Central, and South America. He is best known for his linguistic studies among indigenous people of northern Mexico, including the Tepehuán in 1948.

Museum Director Robert Dyson, seen here
at Hasanlu, Iran, in the 1950s.

In South America, Max Uhle – a German philologist and archaeologist – explored Bolivia and Peru between 1895 and 1897. By uncovering the various levels of Inca and pre-Inca occupation at the ancient religious centre of Pachacamac in Peru, he established the initial understanding of the cultural history of the Andean region of South America. Two decades later, William C Farabee spent three years (1913-1916) exploring the Amazon and its tributaries to identify and study the vast diversity of indigenous people found in this area of the world. Among the many other expeditions to South America was that by Vincenzo Petrullo to Mato Grosso, Brazil, in 1931, followed by two further expeditions to Venezuela in 1933 and 1934-1935. Establishing his headquarters at the headwaters of the Paraguay River, Petrullo studied the Bororo, and then travelled north to the unexplored area around the tributaries of the Xingu River, where he made contact with people who had never before met Westerners.

One of the spectacular artefacts from Ur of the Chaldees. Known as the Ram in the Thicket and dating
to the 3rd millennium BC, it forms a pair with another example, currently in the British Museum.

Bio-anthropology has always been a prominent theme at Penn. Based on the skeletal remains, this discipline focuses on human variation as it is known during modern and historic times, and is a baseline for the study of prehistoric variability. The Morton collection of 1,300 human skulls, for example, was assembled during the early and mid-19th century by Samuel G Morton and his successor, James Aitken Meigs, and its holdings document global human variability. This amazing scientific asset, which came to the Museum in the 1960s (from the Academy of Natural Sciences), is the subject of much debate today in the Museum, as the ethical issues inherent in keeping these crania are very sensitive. How best should such legacy collections be curated, and indeed should they be exhibited or repatriated? In many respects, this current debate has its genesis in the very concept of an encyclopedic museum. Penn had the foresight to recognise this would become an issue exactly half a century ago.

Among the Maya objects on display is this fine stele depicting a Maya ruler (above) and his mother (below). It dates to around AD 760.

The days of obtaining objects for Museum collections ended in the 1960s, due in part to the establishment of stricter antiquities laws by many countries seeking to retain and preserve their own cultural heritage. In 1970, the Penn Museum led the way in persuading UNESCO that museums should accept only provenanced objects in a far-reaching effort to prevent the looting of archaeological sites. Field campaigns did not stop, of course. Many galleries show videos of ongoing campaigns, almost always with Penn students engaged in the excavations. Curators are currently working at Abydos (Egypt) and Gordion (Turkey), on various Near Eastern sites and, nearer to home, on sites in the Mississippi valley. The pioneering story continues, as do the publications of many legacy projects.

The new Penn Museum

The sphinx is part of an illustrious history of research and fieldwork. This much is evident either side of the hall where it sits in splendour today. In the West Wing, to the right of the sphinx as you look upon it, new galleries dedicated to the Museum’s continuing work in the Near East – embracing years of research in Iran as well as other Middle East countries – are rich with extraordinary treasures from the Palaeolithic to the Ottoman era. The centrepiece exhibition is devoted to the treasures from Ur of the Chaldees and the bedazzling crown of Queen Puabi. But an astonishing range of other finds are also on display here. Excavation material from Hasanlu and other smaller sites surveyed in Iran in the 1930s, finds from Syria, and masses of material from ancient Sumeria (Iraq) are arranged to tell a chronological story about the Fertile Crescent and its restless evolution.

To the left of the sphinx are a line of galleries – all transformed by new displays – leading through Native American Voices to the Mexico and Central America gallery, and on to the Africa Galleries. The rich reddish ambience of the Mexico and Central America gallery at the mid-point is in many ways a counterweight to the Near East galleries. A marvellous collection of stone objects loaned from the Philadelphia Museum of Art enhances the display of Penn Museum’s own excavated limestone monuments. Stele 14 is a glorious monument from Piedras Negras, Guatemala, that depicts a Maya ruler and his mother (holding a bundle of feathers) from about AD 760. The ruler is wearing a headdress and heavy jade jewellery, and the stone is surrounded by glyphs. The Museum, thanks to its Russian-American researcher Tatiana Proskouriakoff (1909-1985), helped crack the Maya hieroglyphic code in the 1950s, and naturally this is one theme of the ravishing array of monumental art and smaller objects on display. Maya people today and, pointedly, their precarious circumstances are also addressed in this tightly narrated gallery.

Native American Voices is anything but ravishing. It is a deeply thought-provoking and intense visual display of collections from many parts of North America. Cleverly, chieftain bonnets, musical instruments, weaponry, cooking utensils, and textiles of all kinds are presented through the prism of interviews with Native peoples themselves. These peoples speak to the visitor, sometimes in congenial terms, sometimes in hard-hitting invective. It is a brave and modern insight into a complex past world, and its uncomfortable legacy in our fast-changing times.

The new Africa Galleries can be entered via Jorge Dos Anjos’ Wall of Memory for an Ancestral Palace. Among the remarkable artefacts on display are objects from Benin, such as this carved ivory tusk (inset). Many treasures from Benin were seized during a punitive expedition in the 19th century, raising questions about how museums should respond to such a legacy today.

An even bolder new gallery is a shrine to African genius. A black steel façade with geometric motifs frames the café entrance of the Africa Galleries. Titled Wall of Memory for an Ancestral Palace, the work is set against a background of cobalt blue, with an arched doorway and two niches with inset sculpture. The façade’s design utilises symbols from the orishas, or deities, associated with Candomblé, a religion with Yoruba, Bantu, Fon, and Catholic origins that coalesced in South America. Candomblé means ‘dance in honour of the gods’ and it is this spirit to which the artist, Jorge Dos Anjos, pays homage. Beyond are cases full of entrancing objects. Benin bronzes, breathtaking ceremonial ivories, and textiles of mesmerising complexity are now complemented by modern dresses and an invocation of quotidian lifeways across the continent.

Like the Morton collection, many of the exceptional exhibits in this gallery have a grisly story to tell. A clear statement spells out that numerous objects come from looted contexts. The objects from Benin were acquired from British sources after Sir Harry Rawson’s 1897 Punitive Expedition, which left thousands dead, Benin City gutted, and its great treasures stolen. The French government is currently in negotiation with some of its former colonies, mulling over the notion of returning similar looted objects. Will Penn have to follow suit? Certainly, it is keenly sensitive to the issues surrounding this dark story.

My eye was drawn to a large new wall installation by Muhsana Ali and Amadou Kane Sy, entitled Presence of a Fundamental Absence. In creating this work, the artists were quoted as saying that they were searching for ‘the birth of a new narrative around these objects’. They hope their work will foster a ‘a greater sensitivity towards Africa and the diaspora, suggesting a new perspective’. The artists collected discarded objects from Senegal – broken pottery, crushed cans, nails – and brought them to Philadelphia, where they embedded them in free-form ‘continents’, the colour of red earth. Ali and Kane Sy describe their work as ‘poetic archaeology’ attaching the objects to sheetrock, securing them with grout, and then ‘unearthing’ them. There is no doubting the Penn Museum’s courage in speaking to the genius inherent in African artistry as opposed to showing treasures without any reference to their grim history.

For the future

The upper floor of the Museum is a work in progress. At the top of the marble staircase is a brightly lit introduction to the Egyptian collections. To the right, over the West Wing, is an intriguing display of open storage leading to a gallery where conservators ply their craft.

To the left of the staircase are older galleries travelling across the Mediterranean through Rome, Greece, and Etruscan Italy. Heading straight on from the staircase brings the visitor to the domed rotunda, arguably the finest space in Philadelphia. In the adjacent ‘Upper Egyptian’ galleries, where the roof-line soars, new engineering works will strengthen the floors to allow the Museum to display the great palace of pharaoh Merenptah. Tang treasures in ceramic and stone, paintings from Silk Road caves in the rotunda, and the evergreen mummies in the rooms off Upper Egypt will receive the munificent treatment that the sphinx now enjoys.

The Africa Galleries feature a new artwork by Muhsana Ali and Amadou Kane Sy (seen here), called Presence of a Fundamental Absence. It comprises thrown away objects brought from Senegal to Penn, and embedded in what resembles red earth.

In the Lower Level of the Museum is another energy. The long Merle-Smith Gallery presents contemporary issues in regular changing exhibitions. My good fortune was to encounter Bearing Witness: four days in west Kingston. Anthropologist Deborah Thomas pulls no punches in describing an incendiary social situation that occurred in May 2010 in Jamaica. She addresses the incident using panels, recordings, and household objects to bring family stories to life, and to recount the disarming role of American foreign policy in this tragedy. If an Ivy League museum cannot tell these stories and present them to a public, who can? Such stories are built on student research.

Penn’s temple to outreach: the elegant Harrison lecture theatre, which has a capacity of more than 600.

The Museum aims to complete its new galleries of the eastern Mediterranean, human evolution, and ancient Egypt and Nubia by 2024, with the Asia Galleries to follow. The exterior grandiloquence will be complemented by galleries arranged to dazzle and yet educate the visitor. Great civilisations still form the cornerstone of the narrative, but the Penn Museum today is positively grappling with explaining cultural diversity and its challenges. Public engagement is now at the heart of the Museum’s mission. If there is a dedicated temple to this important outreach goal it is to be found under the rotunda in the eloquently restored Harrison lecture theatre. Here, in a space that seats more than 600, stories involving the pioneers of the past are told through the eyes and opinions of the ever-changing present. Today, more than ever, in this theatre, as in the galleries, the Museum is a place, as the founders wished, that introduces the world to Philadelphia and skilfully gives voice to pasts that shape the present.

Further information
For details about the museum, visit
For more about the sphinx, see Josef Wegner and Jennifer Houser Wegner, The Sphinx that Traveled to Philadelphia: the story of the colossal sphinx in the Penn Museum (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 2015).
ALL IMAGES: courtesy of Richard Hodges, unless otherwise stated