Abigail Seldin C’09 G’09 recently became the first undergraduate student in the University’s history to curate an exhibition at the Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. That exhibition—“Fulfilling a Prophecy: The Past and Present of the Lenape in Pennsylvania”—focused on a Native American nation that was thought to have disappeared from the Pennsylvania area more than 200 years ago [“Gazetteer,” Sept|Oct 2008].
In November, the senior anthropology major was awarded a 2009 Rhodes Scholarship. And those who worked with her weren’t surprised.
“I was really not surprised when she won,” says Harriet Joseph, director of the Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships, who describes Seldin as a “spectacularly intelligent young woman” with a “knack for the practice of research.”
“When Abby applied to be a University Scholar in the second semester of her freshman year (not usually an optimal time for kids to apply),” Joseph recounts, “the faculty were impressed with her academic achievements and her plans for future research, but felt that she needed real mentoring to grow into a really effective researcher. She complied and then found the beginnings of a research project on her own within the anthropology department.”
During her sophomore year, Seldin found the Lenape project through a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program in the museum, notes Joseph, who encouraged her to pursue the project.
“The faculty who were part of the pre-Rhodes practice interview committee all agreed that she was the most mature, well spoken, and passionate Rhodes finalist they had ever interviewed,” Joseph adds.
Seldin, who intends to enroll in the master’s of science program in social anthropology at Oxford University and will petition for PhD status at the end of her first year, told the Gazette that her dissertation will “focus on the role of objects in maintaining secret cultures, like those of the Lenape nation in Pennsylvania or the Marrano Jews of Spain, Portugal, and Mexico.”
In a gesture of cross-cultural solidarity, Seldin brought home-baked hamantaschen, the triangle-shaped cookies served at Purim, to a meeting with members of the Lenape nation, who helped her develop the exhibition at the Penn Museum. The exhibition is co-curated with Lenape Chief Robert Red Hawk Ruth and Shelley DePaul.
Penn President Amy Gutmann thought Seldin was a “natural” for the Rhodes, and described the exhibition as “brilliantly original.”
“She is not only creative, industrious, and forward-looking,” said Gutmann, “she also cares deeply about giving voice to those who history has silenced.”