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Every great home needs a statement piece. One unforgettable item which, by its mere presence, validates the bona fides of everything else inside. It's a declaration of taste, significance and prestige.
Philadelphia's Penn Museum has a whopper of a statement piece: the Sphinx of Pharaoh Ramses II.
Weighing in at 12.5 tons, the Sphinx, the largest in the Western Hemisphere, recently moved from its former location in a lower gallery to a completely redesigned Main Entrance Hall. It will greet all visitors following the Museum's reopening ceremonies on November 16 and 17.
Moving the Sphinx-an engineering feat in itself-represents one piece in the first phase of an ongoing $33 million dollar Building Transformation Project which has also renovated the Penn Museum's Mexico and Central America Gallery, Africa Galleries and a 614-seat Harrison Auditorium in addition to the Main Entrance Hall. Guest comfort amenities including elevators, lounges, air conditioning and restrooms have also been revamped.
"The Museum has completed significant improvements to its historic building in order to make it fully accessible for all-ensuring that every guest has the opportunity to find their place in the arc of human history," Jill DiSanto, Public Relations Director for the Penn Museum, said.
The first section of the original building which now houses the museum was constructed in 1899. Since that time, the institution, formally known as the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, has prioritized its role as a research museum, a priority that has been adjusted with the renovations.
The 'New" Penn Museum is rebranding itself as "America's Museum of Ancient Worlds."
"While proud of the role as a leading research institution, this reopening marks a purposeful shift from 'university museum' to a 'museum for all'-an internationally recognized cultural destination that welcomes visitors from around the world," DiSanto said. "The Museum is excited to expand its collection and offer a deeper look into human history while making the experience accessible for all visitors."
Penn Museum's history as a research institution accounts for many of the treasures on display, treasures acquired first-hand.
The Museum was founded in 1887 to house artifacts from its expedition to Nippur, located in present-day Iraq, the first American-led archaeological project in the region. Since then, the Museum has excavated an unparalleled number of sites in the Middle East where its active research continues today. Ninety-five percent of the material on display in the Middle East Galleries was excavated by Penn archaeologists.
Similarly, the Mexico and Central America Gallery also explore the Museum's long history of archaeological excavations in the region-uncovering temples, tombs, royal residences, and more-and its groundbreaking discoveries in deciphering hieroglyphics.
"In our new Africa Galleries, and our Mexico and Central America Gallery, the Penn Museum will showcase more than 560 artifacts-many of which are on display for the first time-spanning thousands of years of culture, history and art," DiSanto said. "Highlights of the galleries include a stone monument known to archaeologists as Stela 14, which allowed researchers to crack the code in deciphering Maya writing, a complete sculpture of the Water Goddess of Teotihuacan and a Sowei mask worn exclusively by women of a secret society in Sierra Leone and western Liberia."
The Penn Museum's African collection is among the largest in the United States. Its new galleries seek to challenge the outdated idea of the "dark continent" by presenting Africa's continental and international connections, creating new narratives by highlighting Africa's own culture and its place in the world.
"The new Africa Galleries will highlight Africa's global influence and its role in the world today," DiSanto said. "Divided into distinct themes, the Africa Galleries examine Design, Exchange, Wealth and Currency, Spirituality, and Instruments of Battle, Prestige and Music."
Throughout the Museum, a groundbreaking interpretive program assists visitors in understanding the histories and cultures they are observing through artifacts. The Museum's Global Guides Program hires immigrants and refugees to lead tours of its galleries. Through this experience, guests are able to garner additional meaningful stories behind the artifacts through the unique, personal perspectives of their guides.
The program began in 2018 with the introduction of the Middle East Galleries with guides from Iraq and Syria and now expands to include five guides from Mexico, Guatemala and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Renovations at the Museum, which counts more than a million objects from around the globe in its possession, are planned to continue through 2025, but with any luck, the heavy lifting-literally-is over.
"The logistical aspects of moving a 25,000-pound Sphinx from the Lower Level to the Main Entrance-during an already active construction project-was definitely the biggest challenge I've encountered in my entire career," says Brian Houghton, Chief Building Engineer at the Penn Museum. "To complicate matters, the weather on the horizon wasn't looking good and a good part of the move was outdoors, so, the decision was made to move the Sphinx 24 hours earlier than we originally anticipated."
My passion for art began at the Prado Museum in Madrid, Spain with Diego Velazquez and Francisco Goya. My interests have since...
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