From June until August I will be interning in the Exhibitions Department of the Penn Museum. Each summer, the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology runs their Museum Practice Program, designed to expose undergraduates and recent graduates to careers in museums. As a group, about 20 of us attend weekly lectures from various staff members at the Penn Museum. The topics of the lectures range from academic engagement and visitor services to archival research and curatorial practices. We also attend weekly gallery tours given by the curators themselves. These few hours a week have proven to be very valuable opportunities to ask professionals how they have found themselves in their current careers and what advice they have for college students.
The rest of the week I work in the Exhibitions Department with a team of architects and designers to prepare the new Mesoamerican and African collections that will be opening next year. I will be working on several projects over the summer to contribute to the planning and design of the new galleries. The first assignment I have been tackling is 3-D printing. The Penn Museum recently received a 3-D printer so that they can produce tactile, small scale models of their artifacts for visually impaired visitors so that they can better interact with the material. I set up the printer at my own little workstation where I learn 3-D modeling programs such as Photoshop, Meshmixer and PreForm to turns scans of artifacts into printable files.
I also work on smaller projects outside of the new galleries related to the presentation of archaeological history to the public. The Penn Museum runs a summer camp with a session on engineering the mediterranean, for which I am helping my supervisor prepare a lesson plan. When designing talking points and activities, I am focused on conveying lesser-told narratives of history. The history of technological advancement in the Mediterranean tends to be whitewashed and focused on Greek and Roman populations. However, people of color in massively successful and powerful empires—such as that of Carthage—were also leaders in engineering during the same time. I also want to remind them that the materials and forms that made advanced engineering possible in the Mediterranean were often inherited from older Mesopotamian and Indus civilizations.
My studies in the Growth and Structure of Cities Department have especially contributed to my understanding of the museum as a public amenity and cultural center, and thus broadened my conceptions of how the objects in the galleries communicate with the local community and with the city at large. In this position my goal is to continuously consider the power dynamics at work when stories are told. I have found that my interdisciplinary education in the Bi-Co lends itself well to considering broader questions in museum studies, such as how to display artifacts from another culture without exoticizing its people or reducing their culture to a few objects. Museum studies can be a tricky field to navigate in this sense, but it is also part of what makes it so interesting to me; how can we preserve and make accessible relics of history in a way that is responsible and ethical? Sitting in on meetings with curatorial and exhibitions staff has given me a window into how institutions like the Penn Museum are approaching this question.
Written by Leila Breen ’20, growth and structure of cities major, classical and near eastern archaeology minor
Edited by Emily Dombrovskaya ’19