There’s a doozy of a story developing at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. I want to get some of the background out about this story so that China, its government, its people, and/or its museums are not automatically painted as the demonic perpetrators of a cultural crime. If someone decides to dig past the surface of this story, there are all sorts of interesting anthropological insights here. I predict that the fact that two years ago the Penn Museum fired all of its cultural anthropologists and only has archaeologists, art historians, business school graduates, students, and bureaucrats on the staff has an awful lot to do with the mess they have gotten themselves into.
The Penn Museum announced in an emergency staff meeting today that the “Secrets of the Silk Road” exhibit that they have been planning and spending mucho bucks on, has been busted. The show was supposed to bring several hundred thousand people into the suffering museum and at $24.50 a pop was supposed to save help the museum become, in the words of some museum financial person, fiscally responsible. It was to be, in the words of the Silk Road curator, the “rebirth of the museum.”
For reasons the museum refuses so far to reveal, the 3 mummies and dozens of artifacts that were to make up this exhibit are not being allowed to be exhibited in Philadelphia. They have already been exhibited in California and Texas. Curious, don’t you think, especially since the director’s office announced that the artifacts were, indeed, already in the museum and the Chinese couriers were being wined and dined as the exhibit was being readied. There is a good story there.
All the news stories so far have announced that the exhibit tickets already sold will be reimbursed and a page on the museum’s website said the same thing, until it was taken down after about an hour. But whether the show eventually goes on or does not, the damage is done and a portal into the new workings of this museum has been opened. No matter what, the Penn Museum now looks like it can’t do anything right.
When it decided to reorganize and eliminate some of its researchers (only the anthropologists) a few years ago, the museum took a turn towards commerce. It hired endless, expensive consultants and marketing companies, inhouse marketing and visitors’ staffs that now number several dozen people, and an exhibit company that designs its exhibits (previously exhibits came out of actual research, not marketing plans). Now, all of this money (several million dollars) did not, I guarantee you, come from the money saved by eliminating three middle-aged cultural anthropologists. Instead, apparently, the museum’s executive staff borrowed money from the University and perhaps even from some of its other internal funds in order to carry out its vision: a blockbuster show each year that would make lots of money for either the museum or the university or both.
When university museums succumb to the disease pushed by business school graduates and “academics” with dollar signs in their eyes, they should expect a disaster like the one that is unfolding. Stay tuned, but don’t blame the Chinese. It’s the Chinese New Year, the year of the rabbit. Maybe the museum’s non-anthropologists should have looked that up first before they went ahead with their cynical plans.