Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Penn Museum launches online collection to kick off 125th anniversary celebrations

The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology on the Penn campus in Philadelphia dates its official founding to December 6, 1887.

On that date, the Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania resolved to send 'an exploring expedition to Babylonia' — with the stipulation that the University would build 'suitable accommodations' to house any artifacts that the first expedition team, and others, would bring back.

Since that time, the collections of the Penn Museum, built through a vigorous programme of archaeological excavations, anthropological expeditions, planned purchases, and fortuitous donations, have grown to about one million objects. The diverse, internationally acclaimed Collection hails from six continents and spans the millennia, shedding light on the vast scope of human activity and achievement. The permanent building to house the field notes and artifacts came more than a decade later, with the first section of the Museum, at what is now 3260 South Street, opening in 1899.

Now, the Penn Museum begins its 125th anniversary year by placing its Collection front and center, launching the Penn Museum online Collections Database from the Museum’s homepage. It’s a place where scholars can go to get preliminary information on a particular artifact or set of artifacts, teachers and school children can explore a region’s cultural materials, and anybody with access to a computer can 'curate' their own set of favourite 'finds' and share them with friends.

The new public database allows users to search in multiple ways, including by keyword, curatorial section, type of material, and display status. Highlights from the Collection are featured, as are several cross-cultural thematic collections, including Egyptian Afterlife, Hair & Makeup, Feathers, and Animals.

“The Museum was conceived as a public institution with a solid research and collection focus, and it seems only fitting that we should time our public launch of the Museum’s artifact database on this major anniversary year,” noted Dr Richard Hodges, Williams Director of the Penn Museum.

Though launched and open to the public, the online collections database, like the study of archaeology and anthropology, is a work in progress. It currently contains more than 326,000 object records representing 660,000 objects, and 51,500 images illustrating 24,500 object records. Due to the nature of the collections and the varied means of collecting over 125 years, some records are far more detailed than others, and some information presented may have inaccuracies that may date from information input at the time of collecting.

“In developing the online database, we decided to let the scholars and the public see the records as we have them today—rather than wait, what could be many years, to research and confirm all information collected over the decades,” explained Dr. James Mathieu, Chief of Staff and Head of Collections. “What we have online today is a virtual look, really, not only at our collections, but our collections history. 2012 is a great year to invite our constituents—international scholars, students, and the general public—to delve into the Penn Museum’s collections, for inspiration, personal discovery, and to join us in the ongoing research about our shared human heritage.”

The engine behind the public Collections Database is acustomized version of KE Software’s EMu (electronic museum) collections management system which the Penn Museum began using in November 2010. The EMu database system and the online Collections site have been made possible by grants from the Philadelphia Cultural Management Initiative and the William Penn Foundation, and supportfrom the Kowalski Family Fund for Digital Initiatives and A. Bruce and Margaret Mainwaring.

Penn Museum continues the celebration of its 125th anniversary year with a rich set of programs geared for diverse ages and interests, from scholarly symposia to '40 Winks with the Sphinx' sleepovers, special exhibitions (including MAYA 2012: Lords of Time, featuring never-before-seen material from the Museum’s recent excavations at Copan in Honduras), lecture series, and world culture afternoons. A special 125th anniversary edition of the Museum’s Expedition magazine, focusing on 125 famous research expeditions, is due out in December, and a December 6, 2012 special event—details yet to be announced—will mark the official anniversary.

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