What Is a Museum? A Memo to the Penn Community on the Penn Museum

Avery M. Johnston, C’22

“The treasures the University Museum holds cannot be described, even hinted at, in this place…. Scholars from all parts of the world will wish to see the rare and beautiful things which Philadelphia has to offer. But the noble collection is not designed for them alone. It is of the greatest interest to every intelligent person. Archaeology… has much to teach all responsive minds.”

—“Opening of the Sharpe Gallery,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 15 November 1929

A few collected reflections on the nature of museums, the Penn Museum, and a reimagining of a group of its external statues, to the University and its students for their consideration.

The nature of museums

What is a museum, particularly an ethnographic museum? How did they become such ubiquitous bastions of cultural and historical reflection? What are the contemporary intentions behind the creation and maintenance of such institutions, and what ought the curators’ and the observers’ ethnographic objectives actually be? These are a few of the questions one must ask in consideration of our University’s historic museum, especially in light of the recent controversies that came as a result of the April 2021 discovery of the museum’s possession and usage of human remains from the MOVE bombing [1].

This public response demonstrates that modern citizens care not only about the contents of an ethnography museum, but also about the ethicality of its research habits, and accordingly, its involvement with the world outside of the museum and its scholarly pursuits. Why, however, is this the case? An ethnographic museum, by its very nature—curatorial, academic, and analytical—as a collector and exhibitor of the things of our human past, necessarily turns inward upon itself as a part of its mission. If a museum does not, at least to some extent, focus on its internal workings and people, it would not be able to produce anything of intellectual interest to the public or to other scholastic institutions. In what ways, then, is it to interact with the external world?

There has been much theory on just this, and on the nature of museums, especially on the (perhaps changing) purpose of museums in our contemporary world. For instance, in the publication “New Museum Theory and Practice,” Janet Marstine proposes that New Museum studies suggests that “the decisions [museum] workers make reflect underlying value systems that are encoded in institutional narratives… Theorists call for the transformation of the museum from a site of worship and awe to one of discourse and critical reflection that is committed to examining unsettling histories” [2]. In other words, she proposes that museums ought to attempt to dispel the historical myths they use to “frame” the narrative of history as a consistent, uncomplicated thrust toward progress [3].

In some sense, I agree with this. I do think that students and scholars often fall into the trap of portraying historical eras in a certain way, and refusing to waver from cohesion with the narrative one has created. This is the case with some more than others, such as the Middle Ages, an era which I am interested in and which is frequently represented as the “Dark Ages,” a stereotype which is much too un-nuanced to be correct. This sort of framing happens in museums as well. While I therefore indeed agree with the notion of avoiding faulty framing, I do not think that museums ought to completely eschew the narratorial in crafting their historical stories.

There may be a “narrative arc” to human history; what matters is being the most historically accurate, nuanced, and open to new discovery in representing this arc. Although one could argue—and some certainly do argue—that museum displays will always be subjective, I do not think that curators’ interpretive subjectivity as individuals ought to preclude the possibility of reaching a degree of historical objectivity and therefore benefitting the museum observers. These narratives are part of what makes museums, and likewise, learning about human history, interesting to many observers. They provide an impetus for the preservation of our past and our traditions. In an effort to avoid historical subjectivity and inaccuracy, museum curators ought to be willing to present complicated narratives based on the objects they present, not just simple, straightforward ones, and also to acknowledge that our understanding of historical events and peoples is perpetually changing as a result of new discovery. Such humility can protect against the false presentation of a museum display as a thing which is always, unequivocally without error.

Objects are tied together with “people and meanings.” Museums which display and represent these things are, or at least should be, humanist in their missions rather than simply materialistic, as seminal ethnographic museum studies scholar Henrietta Lidchi presumes [4]. Though all museums present a narrative to some degree, ethnographic museums do so especially, as they portray human history. Therefore, it is particularly important for these institutions to be actively committed to doing so in an ethical, human manner for modern humanity. According to Lidchi, it is a concern of new museology that the audience has an important role as the spectator. She highlights the question: How can an ethnographic museum avoid “ideological distortion” in representing other peoples and cultures? [5] How should an audience be made to interact with the ethnographic contents of a museum? In response, she says that museums “will need to create exhibitions that speak of intertwined histories and different perspectives, while stimulating visitors’ desire to be active and opinionated participants at their centre” [6]. Exhibitions can become more interactive and personal to the viewer, engaging with contemporary events and connecting them to events of our human past.

The Penn Museum, externality, and introspection

As many readers are likely already aware, the Penn Museum just earlier this year became involved in a very public controversy regarding the use of remains from the 1985 MOVE bombing, which killed 11 people. For those readers who are unfamiliar with the situation, I will provide a brief synopsis. Penn was given a pelvic bone and a femur from the bombing in the 1980s at the behest of the Philadelphia Medical Examiner Office, and they were eventually shuttled from Penn to Princeton and back over the next several decades [7]. In July, the Penn Museum officially gave the remains to the family of the victim. As of August 25, 2021, the Penn Museum released a report from an independent investigative firm, which found that the Museum had twice attempted to identify the remains in order to give them to the victim’s family, and clarified that the remains were never displayed by the Museum. Regardless of these findings, the Museum, in the same statement, announced that they planned on making several changes and additions to the Museum, such as the creation of a “permanent installation” about the bombing in a publically accessible location, in order to ensure that further actions are as respectful as possible and that the Museum strives to engage the local community more (among other endeavors) [8].

Such efforts, particularly the renewed dedication to engaging the local community through a public display, seem to be directly in line with Lidchi’s suggestions for the modernization of ethnographic museum displays. Such a display would presumably, just as she proposed, connect a historical event (the MOVE bombing) to contemporary questions of ethical ethnographic practices. While I am certainly not one to speak on what would have been the most appropriate handling of the remains, I do strongly believe that there is a beautiful and ethical way forward for the Museum—and all museums, ethnographic or not, that are truly dedicated to nuanced historic preservation and historically-informed education—to seek.

Through reflection within each museum (which the Penn Museum clearly undertook to some extent this summer in considering the best way forward after giving the Africa family the remains), and a revived dedication to not only the appreciation of our human archaeological heritage and the conservation of its remnants in a humane manner, but also a healthy interaction with the local community, ethnographic museums can strive toward an ideal. At the Penn Museum, there are certainly many ways such a mission could be furthered, but I specifically suggest a reimagination of the Alexander Stirling Calder continent statues in the Stoner Courtyard.

Figure 2: “Museum Library: Detail of campus map.” Penn Libraries. Accessed December 16, 2021. https://www.library.upenn.edu/about/locations/floor-plans/museum. The Stoner Courtyard is the courtyard to the right, along South Street, in the image below.

The Calder statues—a way forward

Alexander Stirling Calder came from a line of sculptors: he was the son of Alexander Milne Calder, who sculpted the iconic William Penn statue atop City Hall [9]. Aside from his statues which grace the Stoner Courtyard, Calder the junior also designed the Swann Memorial Fountain in Logan Circle, which “[represents] Philadelphia’s two rivers and major creek: Delaware, Schuylkill and Wissahickon,” [10] as well as the wall fountain by the main entrance, [11] among others elsewhere. The statues in question are grouped together, as they each represent a continent (or two continents, in the case of North and South America). The four sculptures, erected in 1931, are titled America, Africa, Asia, and Europe.

Figure 3: Calder, Alexander Stirling. Asia. 1931. Penn Museum Stoner Courtyard. http://artcollection.upenn.edu/collection/art/1327/asia/. One figure represents India, the other, China.

Calder developed these statues specifically for the Stoner Courtyard of the Museum, taking into consideration the style (as the courtyard is modeled after Old Italian courtyards), lighting, and context of the environment they would be in prior to designing them. Actually, in a letter to a Mr. McIlvaine, who was in communication with Calder regarding the placement of the sculptures, Calder said:

In regard to the facing of the [statues] at the museum, I thought very strongly at the time and still think for that particular building, considering its use as housing collection of old art, the enclosed, withdrawn character of which, is well expressed by the wall shutting off the street, that these groups should face, as they do, the forecourt and the building. So that from within the court, the entire composition is had, removing from passing distractions… Another reason for facing them south was that they receive sunlight in front and their background is better” [12].

This letter can inform us of Calder’s understanding both of his own work and of the Museum for which he designed it. The continents are represented carefully and thoughtfully. America, Africa, Asia, and Europe were intended to provoke reflection in the viewer. Upon entering the courtyard of the museum, the museum-goer could look up to Calder’s sculptures, away from the bustle of everyday life, and consider, through the beauty and regality of the work, what it meant to visit an ethnographic museum—one which displays the humanity of which they are a part. Perhaps they even reflect upon the nature of being human. Regardless, it is evident that the Museum, for Calder, was meant to be a place of profound contemplation.

This philosophy of museum-going fits very well into my own aforementioned philosophy of museums, as informed by modern museum theory: museums ought to first reflect on just this, and after this, endeavor to interact in some way with the surrounding community which attends the museum. Calder’s sculptures, then, can perhaps serve as a tangible inspiration for the Penn Museum as it continues in its efforts to do just this. I would therefore like to propose that the Museum work to intentionally highlight its mission in relation to these statues. This could be done through a plaque somewhere in the courtyard near the sculptures, but more relevantly, it could be done through an event in the Stoner Courtyard which can be publicly attended. During this event, a representative of the Museum could speak about the statues and their memorialization of the mission of the Museum before beginning a discussion among attendees regarding the purpose of ethnography and the wonderful and interesting work that the Museum has done in the past and will do in the future to reach a more historically accurate, nuanced understanding of the peoples and cultures it represents [13]. These statues can signify an ideal of ethnographic representation that the museum can strive towards, and we ought to imagine them in this way.


Acknowledgement and Notes

Thank you very much to the Penn Museum Archival Staff for graciously helping me to access your collected archives on Alexander Stirling Calder and his work with the Museum!

[1] See Kamille Houston and Brandon Anaya, “The Controversial, Complicated History behind Penn’s Handling of the MOVE Bombing Victim Remains,” Daily Pennsylvanian, 29 April 2021, https://www.thedp.com/article/2021/04/penn-museum-move-bombing-remains-backlash-controversy-protest, for synopsis and timeline.

[2] Janet Marstine, “Introduction,” in New Museum Theory and Practice: An Introduction, ed. Janet Marstine (Malden, Mass.: John Wiley & Sons, and Blackwell Publishing, 2006), 5.

[3] Marstine, “Introduction,” 4.

[4] Henrietta Lidchi, “Culture and Constraints: Further Thoughts on Ethnography and Exhibiting,” International Journal of Heritage Studies 12, no. 1 (2006), 94.

[5] Lidchi, “Culture and Constraints,” 96.

[6] Lidchi, 109.

[7] Houston and Anaya, “The Controversial, Complicated History behind Penn’s Handling of the MOVE Bombing Victim Remains.”

[8] “Towards a Respectful Resolution,” Penn Museum, 25 August 2021, https://www.penn.museum/towards-respectful-resolution/.

[9] Tom Stanley and Erin Gregory, “Happy 147th Birthday, Alexander Stirling Calder,” Penn Museum Blog, 9 January 2017, https://www.penn.museum/blog/museum/happy-147th-birthday-alexander-stirling-calder/.

[10] Kenneth Finkel, Philadelphia Then and Now: 60 Sites Photographed in the Past and Present (New York: Dover, 1988).

[11] Jim McClelland, “Other Fountains in the Philadelphia Area,” in Fountains of Philadelphia: A Guide (Mechanicsburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 2005), 61.

[12] Alexander Stirling Calder, “Calder to McIlvaine,” 14 April 1931, Penn Museum Archives, emphasis added.

[13] Questions such as those that I posed in the beginning of this memo could serve well.