Penn Museum is getting its biggest makeover in 118 years

The Penn Museum is internationally famous for its incomparable collection of mummies and architectural elements from ancient Egypt (not to mention its sphinx), its dazzling artifacts from the Royal Tomb of Ur in the Middle East, and for its Mayan writing on stone shafts and tablets, some of the oldest carved in the Western hemisphere.

It is less congenially known for displaying these objects in some of the darkest, hottest, and timelessly static galleries known to humankind.

But that is about to change.

The museum has embarked on a three-phase renovation program that promises to transform the galleries and installations — the most extensive refurbishment and upgrading in the museum’s 118-year history. When it is complete in 2021, all of the museum’s galleries will be reworked and renovated, stories told by the collection will be more complete and clear, lighting will turn the dingy into the dazzling, air conditioning will course through the whole complex, and artifacts — some of them huge — will be presented in theatrical and complete arrays, many for the first time.

“This is the most complete renovation this building has seen,” said Julian Siggers, museum director. “We’ve always been a research powerhouse here. Last summer, we conducted 23 digs on six continents. We also have a remarkable world-class collection. This is an opportunity for us finally to leverage these collections into something Philadelphia can be enormously proud of.  This is really the museum’s moment, the way our president [Amy Gutmann] described it the other day.”

Camera icon Photo: Penn Museum
This print of a human foot discovered on an ancient mud brick used in construction at the royal city of Ur (in modern-day Iraq), and possibly dating to 2100-2000 BCE, will be on view at the entrance to the Penn Museum’s Middle East Galleries, opening April 21.

The first phase of the renovation, which officially kicks off Nov. 1, is a $21 million project to open up the main entrance lobby, off South Street opposite Franklin Field. Blocked windows and staircases will be unmasked, a new gallery will be carved out to greet visitors immediately upon entering, and the 700-seat Harrison Auditorium will be refurbished and air-conditioned. A new shop, elevators, and bathrooms will be added.

Most important from a curatorial perspective, the Middle East, Mexico and Central America, and Africa galleries will be transformed.

The money is in hand for this phase of the project. Siggers declined to say what the total cost of all three phases of the renovation will be. Sources at the University of Pennsylvania said that the museum has already raised $50 million and that the renovation project will be included in the next university-wide capital campaign, due for announcement in the spring. Siggers declined to comment.

The university sources, who were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter, said the cost of the renovation project would exceed the $50 million already in hand.

The Middle East Galleries, which contain the museum’s extraordinary Sumerian collection, will be the first to reopen, in April.

Camera icon Renderings by Haley Sharpe Design, Leicester, U.K
Renderings of the new Middle East Galleries, the first of the Signature Galleries to open, in April.

Dan Rahimi, the museum’s executive director of galleries, said the renovation “allows us to reinvent” the installations, many of which are exactly the same now as he remembers them during his graduate student days 40 years ago.

“The collections are superb,” he said. “And under-displayed. They are not lit properly. They are not exposed properly. They are not interpreted properly. They are not protected properly. Now is our chance to really modernize … and get people to look at the objects. This is all about the objects. Let’s get people to see them for what they are, and we’ll provide the context for interpreting them.”

For the Middle East Galleries, the curatorial team has chosen to use the development of Mesopotamia and environs as a way to show the evolution of human associations into increasingly complex cities. The new galleries will also allow the display of many more artifacts.

Stephen J. Tinney, the museum’s deputy director and chief curator, said the new galleries will be organized both chronologically and thematically.

“The larger global world has its origins, in some senses, in the ancient Middle East, where the process of gathering together in cities and larger and larger networks originated,” Tinney said. This framing, he suggested, would offer “big changes for visitors.”

The presentation will be anything but old-school. Museumgoers will be greeted at the entrance by an ancient tile made in Mesapotamia thousands of years ago — with a footprint embedded in it. When they conclude their journey at the end of the galleries, they will be greeted by two drainage pipes — one from Ur and one from Home Depot; they are virtually identical.

A SEPTA map will be displayed alongside a clay map from ancient Nippur, between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.

“The SEPTA maps looks remarkably the same,” said Rahini. “The idea is to spark someone’s imagination: ‘Ah ha! Maybe the past isn’t so different from the present.’ ”

In November 2018, the refurbished Mexico and Central America Gallery will reopen. In the fall of 2019, the new Africa Gallery will make its debut.

Camera icon Penn Museum archives
Penn Museum excavations of the palace of the pharaoh Merenptah (ca. 1236-1223 BCE) in Memphis Egypt in 1915.

In Phase Two of the project, work will begin on the museum’s renowned Egyptian galleries. Siggers said the floor of the upper gallery will be shored up  allowing for the display — for the first time — of the museum’s monumental architectural objects from the royal palace of Merenptah, who ruled more than 3,000 years ago.

Alas, when the 50 tons of the great find were transported to Philadelphia in 1924, the gallery built to house them was not strong enough to do so. But the renovation will take care of that, allowing the great columns and other architectural elements to be displayed in their full grandeur for the first time in the upper gallery.

The 13-ton red granite sphinx of Ramses II will remain in the lower Egyptian gallery.

Phase Three of the project will include renovation of the museum rotunda, reinstallation of its Asian collection there, and completion of the building’s first HVAC system.

New York’s Gluckman Tang Architects is leading the renovation project; Haley Sharpe Design, a British firm, is responsible for the Middle East gallery installation.

Along with the construction, the museum is rethinking its programming with an eye toward broadening its appeal to the larger Philadelphia community.

“In many ways, it’s the story of us,” Siggers said, speaking of what he hopes the transformed museum will communicate. “Who we are and where we came from. And so, no matter where you’re from, this museum has a part of your story. At our core, we want to tell the human story.”