Last call has come and gone for Drinks with the Sphinx.
The last tykes from Winks with the Sphinx have been roused from dusty slumber and sent home.
But regular visitors to the largest Sphinx in North America — 13 tons of pharaonic hubris carved in a massive block of red granite — still have an opportunity to visit the famous and mysterious Sphinx at the Penn Museum before the Egyptian galleries close at the end of visiting hours on Sunday, July 8, for an appropriately massive renovation that will take four to six years, museum officials said.
When the galleries reopen, the half-columns that now surround the Sphinx now will be assembled at full height for the first time, one on top of the other, and installed in a gallery above — as was originally intended when the Egyptian galleries opened in the 1920s. The Sphinx will stay in its current gallery.
“The King Merenptah columns will move upstairs,” said Josef Wegner, associate curator of the museum’s Egyptian section, and coauthor with his wife, Jennifer Houser Wegner, of The Sphinx that Traveled to Philadelphia: The Story of the Colossal Sphinx in the Penn Museum. “The columns will be in a grander setting, and the Sphinx will be the focal point of the galleries of ancient Egypt.”
The renovation is part of the most extensive makeover of the Penn Museum in its 118-year history. The Middle East Galleries have already been refurbished and reopened. Next up will be Harrison Auditorium, the Mexico and Central America Gallery, the Africa Galleries, the museum entrance hall, and more. All are due for unveiling in September of 2019.
As important as these other renovations are to the $50-million-plus project, none has quite the mystique of the renovations and reconfigurations taking place around the 3,000-year-old Sphinx.
And the Sphinx will move, too. But because of its size, it will not leave the lower Egyptian gallery where it now rests. Rather it will be installed several meters to the east.
“There’s no physical way to get it out,” said Wegner, “unless we dynamite the back of the gallery, which we don’t want to do.”
Instead, the base of the Sphinx, which is constructed of railroad ties, will be rebuilt from steel and the Sphinx will be moved east to welcome entering visitors.
“He’ll be relocated, and the role of the Sphinx will be enhanced to become a kind of emissary of ancient Egypt,” Wegner said. He will greet visitors passing through the as-yet constructed Gateway to Egypt.
That is a role the Sphinx has played at the museum since Penn archaeologists removed it from Memphis, Ramses II’s great capital, and shipped it to Philadelphia, where it arrived in October of 1913.
The Sphinx was first placed at the entrance to the museum. (Thousands of city residents thronged to West Philadelphia to see it installed). After three years, amid concern that the Sphinx was suffering weather-related damage, it was moved inside to the museum entrance hall.
The museum is celebrating the Sphinx during its last weekend on view to the public. Museum officials are quick to note that while the Sphinx and other artifacts will not be on view after this weekend, mummies and Egyptian funerary artifacts will be on hand for visitors to see throughout the renovation.
A Penn Museum photographer will be on hand 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday to immortalize family visits with free Sphinx portraits for all. (They’ll be emailed to you.) When the Sphinx reemerges from hibernation in a few years, an updated family photo can be taken.
The museum will also have the Wegners’ book on the Sphinx available for purchase and will maintain an online Sphinx presence where you can read about Sphinx history, share Sphinx memories, and post Sphinx pics until the gallery reopens again.
SEE THE SPHINX
The Penn Museum is located at 3260 South St. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Sunday July 8 is the last chance to visit the Sphinx before renovations. Tickets: Discounted summer admission (through August) is $10 for adults, seniors, and children 6 to 17 (free for children under 6). Information: 215-898-4000 or penn.museum