Philadelphia’s Penn Museum (University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology) was among the first American museums to begin collecting African art and artifacts. Located on the University of Pennsylvania campus, the museum has about 20,000 objects in its African collection, in addition to 42,000 ancient artifacts in the Egyptian collection. Most African collection objects were obtained between 1891 and 1930 and hail from nearly every major cultural area of the African continent, and provide an unparalleled regional resource.
“Imagine Africa,” a year-long project investigating community perspectives, opens this month. The innovative exhibition poses several questions, such as: How do you imagine Africa? Do you see it as the home of powerful nations? Do you think of the people living in Africa today? Through a variety of engagement opportunities, visitors will be asked to provide feedback on the objects and content they see, and to discuss what would make an engaging exhibition-from their point of view. Throughout the year, the museum will engage — through a gallery installation, diverse public programming and a rich website — in discussions with the regional community, as it begins long-range plans to re-envision its African gallery for a 21st-century audience.
“One of the things we are striving for is to bring in new communities and show that Penn Museum is an institution that is open to the public, and specially to our neighbors, so we are trying to break down that barrier through this exhibition,” said Jean Byrne, of the museum’s Community Engagement department. “The whole thing is about commentary and collaboration, so we’re open to continued feedback.”
Drawing on its extraordinary African collection, the Penn Museum will present more than 50 objects framed around eight broad topics. Collaborations with local community organizations will help produce a year of Africa-inspired public events.
“The idea is to begin a discussion with our community,” noted Kate Quinn, director of exhibitions. “We hope to present this material in such a way that the public can respond to it honestly, and tell us what they think. This is the first time the museum has ever done something like this where we’re talking in all communities and asking them what do they think about Africa and what do they want to know about it. We’re asking what is their image of Africa and what intrigues them about it.”
In addition, a range of interactive programs at area schools and community centers is part of the initiative. “I want them to think about this as their public museum,” said Quinn. “We have the reputation as being an academic-oriented museum. The issues we deal with, such as cultural diversity, are so important for people to have places where they can go and experience programs on different cultures that really talk to them.”
For over 15 years, Mawusi Simmons has conducted interactive tours of the Museum’s African Gallery, focusing on musical instruments. “I have a love of Africa and all things African. “I’ve studied African music and I just want to have ways of sharing that love of African music and culture with other people.”
According to Simmons, her inspiration as a docent comes from a need to inform visitors of the vast cultural wealth Africa has. “I usually share instruments that are non-drums, because I think most people are aware of the drums of Africa — and they are very important, they are like the heartbeat of Africa — but I also like to share instruments that people may not be familiar with that come from Africa,” said Simmons. “Those include the mbira, a keyboard instrument that is found throughout Africa and has different names (such as the kalimba) in different cultures. There is the kora, which is a harp-lute instrument. Other instruments are the balafone, in which the sound is produced by the instrument itself like a xylophone. Those instruments give people a wider range of what’s in Africa.”
“Imagine Africa, a year-long project investigating community perspectives, opens Sept. 18 and runs through Sept. 16 of next year. Other fall programs include an African pottery weekend workshop, Oct. 1 and 2 and a family Sunday walk-in program, “Imagine Creating,” Sunday, Oct. 9, 1 p.m. to 4 pm. An African lecture series co-sponsored by Penn’s Center for Africana Studies kicks off Thursday, Oct. 20 at 6 p.m. with Dr. Tukufu Zuberi, Penn’s Lasry Family Professor of Race Relations, who discusses the challenge of making a documentary in Africa, with “Africa and the World.”
Penn Museum is located at 3260 South St., across from Franklin Field. For general information call (215) 898-4000 or visit www.penn.museum. For group tour information call (215) 746-8183.
Free Library, UPenn displaying artifacts
This is the closest historians, archeologists and armchair etymology buffs can get to Africa without actually visiting the Motherland, as cultural icons the Free Library of Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archeology and Anthropology will separately provide insights while celebrating humanity’s birthplace.
The Free Library opens its latest Afrocentric exhibit, “Materials Transformed: The Art of African Sculpture” Tuesday May 15, and features more than 100 objects from the more than 50 African countries.
The exhibit, which runs through the end of August, will feature a myriad of artistic creations, including Sierra Leonean mende minsereh figures, a Nigerian Nupe door, kebe-kebe dance staffs used by the Kuyu people and fon bocio – royal metal animal figurines from Benin – among other native indigenous items.
Many of these items belong to the collection of Mary Sue Rosen and Paul Peter Rosen, and provide a striking, three-dimensional view into the culture and craftwork produced in Africa.
“As the Free Library, we are proud to host compelling exhibitions that illuminate and celebrate the diversity of art and culture throughout our city and our world,” said Free Library of Philadelphia Director and President Siobhan A. Reardon. “We are especially thankful to the Rosens for generously sharing items for their vast collections of African art with us, and I encourage all Philadelphians to come and enjoy [this] exhibition.”
The Materials Transformed exhibit will also feature medicine gourds from Tanzania, brass weights from the Ivory Coast and Ghana, along with traditional war and tribal masks from West and Central Africa.
Across town, The University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Anthropology and Archeology will celebrate Africa in its own unique method, by way of the ongoing “Imagine Africa” season-long exhibit and performance presentation.
“An Evening to Imagine Africa” commences at 5 p.m. on Wednesday, May 23, and the free event features a hybrid, performance-exhibit type of set up. Billed as a free community night, this event will bring together performances by the West Powelton Steppers Drill team and R&B line dance instructor Kenny J, while writers from the Philadelphia Youth Poetry Movement present their original works to the exhibit attendees.
Members of the East Coast Black Age of Comics Convention will also be on hand, offering their expertise during a comic book creation workshop, while officials with Odunde will be on hand to discuss their plans for its upcoming 37th annual street festival, slated for June 10; City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell will host this event.
The “Imagine Africa” series covers a major cross-section of the creativity and culture of the continent. The 12-month run features various programs that will look at Africa through eight distinctive pathways: Imagine Strength; Imagine Changing; Imagine the Devine; Imagine Creating; Imagine Healing; Imagine Power; Imagine Strength and Imagine Fashion. The entire “Imagine Africa” series is designed to be interactive, as it seeks feedback from visitors.
“Imagine Africa with the Penn Museum is a twelve-month project investigating your thoughts.
Visitors will see a small selection from the Penn Museum’s extraordinary African collection, and will be asked for their feedback on what they see,” museum officials stated through a release coinciding with the event. “Community groups will be invited to give us more detailed feedback, and in this way, we will form a picture of what most visitors want to know about the vast continent of Africa.
“With this feedback, the museum will plan a re-installation of the African collection, informed by academic and community perspectives.”
Did the Maya believe the world would end in December 2012? In recent years, the media have been filled with claims that the ancient Maya predicted a cataclysmic event at the end of their calendar. Some believe that a celestial alignment will bring a series of devastating natural disasters. Others argue that this event will bring enlightenment and a new age of peace. As December 2012 draws closer, new predictions continue to emerge.
So, what did the Maya really believe? With “MAYA 2012: Lords of Time,” the Penn Museum confronts the current fascination with the year 2012, comparing predictions of a world-transforming apocalypse with their supposed origins in the ancient Maya civilization. The exhibition features more than 150 remarkable objects and is presented in partnership with the Instituto Hondureño de Antropologia e Historia of the Republic of Honduras. In addition to impressive, Classic Maya art and artifacts excavated at Copan, and towering replicas of exceptional ancient Maya monuments, the exhibition features interactive experiences that invite visitors to explore ancient and contemporary Maya.
“’MAYA 2012’ offers visitors a rare opportunity to view spectacular examples of Classic Maya art — some of which have never before been seen outside Honduras — and delve into the Maya people’s extraordinary, layered, and shifting concepts about time,” noted exhibition Curator Dr. Loa Traxler, an archaeologist who excavated at the site of Copan from 1989 through 2003.
The ancient Maya civilization has long fascinated scholars and the public alike. For 2,000 years, the Maya flourished in southern Mexico and parts of Central America, their grand cities featuring temple pyramids, palaces, ball courts and intricately carved stone monuments bearing royal portraits and a complex hieroglyphic script. They excelled in art, architecture, astronomy and mathematics — developing a calendar system that amazes and intrigues to this day. The Maya’s complex, interlocking calendar systems, which were based on an advanced understanding of astronomy and the night sky, are simply fascinating. Their most elaborate system, the Long Count, encompasses trillions of years and one of its important cycles comes to a close on December 23, 2012 (some scholars say December 21, 2012). This is the origin of the Maya 2012 “end of the world” phenomenon.
“Regardless of what some may say about the December 2012 Phenomenon, the people of Honduras are certain that this year provides us a unique opportunity to share a part of our history and culture with the world,” said Dr. Norma Cerrato, minister counselor of legal affairs, Embassy of Honduras. “Even though they abandoned this city many centuries ago, the legacy of the Maya lives on in Copa Ruinas today. It lives in the smiles of the people who live and work in this small town surrounded by ancient stories and tropical rainforests. It lives in the knowledge and fascination that hundreds of thousands of tourists experience every year. The Government of Honduras and the University of Pennsylvania have been working together to explore the wonders of Copna for almost three decades. MAYA 2012: Lords of Time is a celebration of this collaboration.”
“MAYA 2012: Lords of Time” is on exhibit at the University of Pennsylvania Museum from May 5th through January 13, 2013. Porfirio Lobo Sosa, president of the Republic of Honduras, joins Penn Museum Director Richard Hodges to cut the ribbon and open the exhibition to the public at 10 a.m., Saturday, May 5. An Opening Weekend Celebration, co-sponsored by the Mexican Cultural Center, features Mayan and Central American music, dance, weaving and craft demonstrations, and family craft activities in the Museum Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Timed tickets to the exhibition (includes admission to the Museum) are on sale by phone (888) 695-0888) or through the Museum’s website (www.penn.museum/2012).
Making a mummy costume for Halloween can be hilarious, but handling a real one is truly a unique experience. Now guests at the Penn Museum can take part in the behind-the-scenes world of museum conservation. The public is invited to visit a brand-new conservation workspace, complete with project conservator, during regular museum hours at “In the Artifact Lab: Conserving Egyptian Mummies.”
Part exhibition, part working laboratory, the workspace is a glass-enclosed conservation lab set up on the museum’s third-floor Special Exhibitions Gallery. The lab is complete with conservators’ tools of the trade, including a high-powered (60X) binocular microscope and even higher-powered (200X) polarized light microscope, optivisors, a fume extractor to whisk away noxious chemicals, an HEPA filtered vacuum, an examination light trolley perfect for directing light at various power levels onto delicate objects, and a wide range of small hand tools as well as adhesives, solvents and other chemicals.
Visitors can look in to see a range of artifacts in various stages of conservation, watching as conservator Molly Gleeson moves from studying, preparing, cleaning, mending or conserving an elegant ancient coffin lid, to elaborately wrapped animal mummies, to human mummy heads. When she is not available to answer questions, a Smartboard is updated with information about the projects being carried out for the day. Sometimes the work of conservators can be dramatic, as was the case with an Egyptian mummy shroud, made of linen and paint and estimated to be about 2,000 years old, purchased by the Museum in 1936. It appeared on closer inspection by Egyptologists and conservators to be incorrectly pieced together. In 1997, the pieces were reassembled correctly and now, properly arranged, the text clearly reveals the deceased’s name, Hor.
Penn Museum’s ancient Egyptian collection is one of the finest in the country. The museum houses about 42,000 ancient Egyptian artifacts, the majority of which were obtained from archaeological investigations in Egypt. The first-floor Egypt (Sphinx) Gallery features a 12-ton red granite sphinx, the largest in the Western hemisphere, as well as the gateway, columns, doorways and windows from the palace of the pharaoh Merenptah, all from about 1200 BCE. The upstairs Egypt (Mummy) Gallery features fine Egyptian sculpture spanning 5,000 years of cultural change and continuity. Two smaller side gallery exhibitions, the Egyptian Mummy: Secrets and Science, and Amarna: Ancient Egypt’s Place in the Sun, provide additional perspectives on ancient Egyptian culture and times through the millennia.
Conservation is a skill and a science, and guests can watch as the project conservator examines ancient material fragments under one of two high-powered microscopes — with the results of what she sees shown on a large-scale screen. For those who want to try it themselves, an interactive microscope station invites all to put a range of materials, from papyrus to copper to cartonnage, under the microscope, observing firsthand the effects of decay over time, and getting a better sense of the challenges conservators face when caring for objects made from similar materials.
Penn Museum visitors can watch Gleeson, or other members of the Penn Museum Conservation Department, at work throughout the day, with question-and-answer periods at 11:15 a.m. and again 2 p.m., Tuesday through Friday; or at 1 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. on weekends. The University of Pennsylvania Museum is located 3260 South St For more information, call (215) 898-4000 or visit www.penn.museum.