Penn Museum presents online collections database

Sphinx of Ramesses II (circa 1293-1185 BCE), the third largest ancient Egyptian sphinx outside of Egypt, was excavated from the sacred enclosure of the temple of the god Ptah at Memphis, Egypt. Image: Penn Museum

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 artefacts that the first expedition team, and others, would bring back.

Bronze Plaque (16th century) The Museum has a renowned collection of brass plaques, often called “Benin bronzes,” from the royal palace of the Kingdom of Benin (located in present day Nigeria). This plaque celebrates a general at the Isiokuo war festival. Two high-ranking soldiers flank him as he raises his eben to dance to the musicians’ gongs and trumpet. Two pages are prepared to serve the chief, one by cooling him with a fan. Purchased from W.O. Oldman in Museum object # AF2066. Photo: Penn Museum.

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 artefacts 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 centre, 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 artefact or set of artefacts, 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.

Etruscan Helmet (circa 725-700 BC), made from hammered bronze. The sheer size of this battle accoutrement allowed its wearer to be identified at a distance by his followers. This is one of two helmets found buried with the same warrior. Museum object #MS850. Photo: Penn Museum.

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 artefact 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.

Crystal Ball (19th Century) The forty-nine pounds of transparent quartz crystal is said to be from the imperial collections of the infamous Qing dynasty Empress Cixi (1835 – 1908). Cixi was a concubine who rose to the position of Dowager Empress during the latter part of China’s Qing dynasty (1644 – 1911). The crystal ball, which enjoys pride of place in the centre of the Museum’s Chinese Rotunda, has been in the Museum’s collections since 1927. Museum object# C681A. Photo: Penn Museum.

“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.”
Past Horizons


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