For Penn Museum, Will Less Be More?

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Facing financial hardship and pressure to reform its strategic vision, the Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology announced in November that it would be scaling back the research activities that have formed the backbone of its mission since the institution was established in 1887. 

Richard Hodges, the Williams Director of the Museum [“Gazetteer,” Nov|Dec 2007], explained the decision in a letter to staff in December. “The Museum, in close consultation with the University, has made the difficult decision that, effective May 31, 2009, the Museum will no longer support the ‘Research Specialist’ positions that have been a part of Curatorial Departments and the Museum Applied Science Center for Archaeology (MASCA),” he wrote. “MASCA as an entity will be disbanded. In all, 18 positions will be discontinued—though we fully anticipate that some of the scholars in those positions will continue in some capacity in University teaching or alternate Museum positions.”

The cuts represent a substantial portion of the Museum’s academic firepower, including several scholars of international repute. Among those whose future has been cast into doubt are Patrick McGovern Gr’80, whose chemical analyses of stains on ancient vessels have revealed some of the earliest known beers and wines, and Naomi Miller, whose expertise in archaeobotany has helped to answer questions about the longevity and sustainability of various agricultural and pastoral practices. 

The general reaction among the Museum’s academic staff—including many curators and tenured professors who were spared—was less one of surprise than disappointment. 

“My personal reaction to it is that it is somewhat unfortunate, as far as the long-term standing of the Museum as a major international research institution,” said Josef Wegner, assistant curator of the Egyptian section and associate professor of Near Eastern languages and civilizations. “You know, as we’re trying to continue to develop and foster the standing of the Museum, a lot of the people that were just all phased out—in one singlehanded movement—they are contributing significantly to the mission of the Museum.”

In an interview with the Gazette, Hodges stressed that research will remain a core part of the Museum’s future. “We’ve got 40 people doing research here, even despite [the elimination of] those research scientists. So we’re one of the largest research centers for archeology in the United States, if not the largest.” 

Yet many observers inside and outside of the Museum have voiced concern, both privately and publicly, about the breadth and depth of the cuts. The wholesale elimination of MASCA has sparked particular distress. Gil Stein Gr’88, director of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, said he is “very sympathetic to the budgetary challenge” the Museum faces, but lamented the decision to pull the plug on that “tremendously valuable resource.” 

“MASCA was very much central to my own graduate training in anthropology at Penn,” he said. “MASCA is a unique organization in American academia, a methods laboratory that is much more analogous to European institutions, what you might find at an English or German or French university. It’s very rare to find that kind of expertise having an institutional home and institutional support that lets it do its work … MASCA also was the home to a series of specializations that both trained graduate students in ways they couldn’t get training through the anthropology department, and gave them research skills that really helped them as researchers and on the job market, and were also providing a service to the University Museum and to academia. 

“As an anthropologist and archeologist,” Stein added, “and someone in charge of an analogous institution, it’s just a terrible loss to our discipline. I wish the Oriental Institute had an organization like MASCA. It’s a shame it has to be eliminated.” 

Stein was one of more than 2,000 academics and graduate students to sign an open letter characterizing the Museum’s decision as “a reversal of [its] original mission.” Yet the Museum’s stated mission has long been a multifaceted one. It encompasses not only academic endeavors like “research excellence” and “preservation and documentation of sites and collections,” but also visitor-centric goals like “excellence in interpretive exhibits” and “communication with our public about the world’s cultural heritage.” According to a five-year strategic plan approved by the Museum’s board of overseers in December, efforts to attract visitors will become a higher priority in the future. The document outlines goals such as bringing air-conditioning to the galleries, establishing a “high-end, destination restaurant,” and dreaming up ways to lure undergraduates into a building that few currently visit. 

Addressing staff concerns about the possible erosion of the Museum’s research capacity, Hodges wrote in an email that “independent” research would remain integral to the Museum’s dual mission. Yet “costs have increased steeply over the last decade,” he wrote. “Both parts of the mission, therefore, need to generate revenues … to help us sustain them.” He added that the Museum’s research goals would shift to concentrate more on the publication of older field projects. Essentially, the Museum aims to narrow its focus on the “Great Civilizations,” which Hodges considers its strength. 

In 2008, central University financial support accounted for 43 percent of the Museum’s revenues. Investment income was the second-largest inflow, contributing nearly 19 percent, or $3 million—a number that is almost certain to fall given the economic climate. Gifts were responsible for 17 percent of revenues, and sales amounted to 10 percent. 

Grants, which Hodges hopes will play a larger role going forward, accounted for less than 7 percent of the Museum’s revenues. “As is normal international practice in the sciences,” he wrote to staff, the Museum will ask researchers to “raise—with our help—their salaries by grants or other generated income.” 

Unfortunately, the national pool of grant money for academic archaeology is shallow. 

The National Science Foundation has an annual budget of about $6 million for archaeology grants, and applicants face robust competition. “For senior researchers with doctoral degrees, the success rate is roughly 25 percent,” said NSF archaeology program director John Yellen.  And although the NSF is allowed to support 12-month salaries, he added, “That’s not the norm in archaeology. The standard proposal we get is from a full professor at a university” seeking either summer salary or a stipend to cover field research. 

The National Endowment of the Humanities awarded 25 archaeology-related projects a total of $2.36 million in 2008. The National Geographic Society is another source of grants, but generally does not support annual salaries for researchers. 

“It’s perfectly reasonable to insist that a certain portion of their funding has to come from outside sources,” said Gil Stein, taking pains to reiterate his sympathy for the situation Hodges and the Museum’s overseers face. “But an organization like the University Museum really has to act as the protector and sponsoring framework … I mean, Penn is looked at as one of the leading centers in the U.S., and in the world, for archaeology. Once you lose core people, they’re gone. It’s one of those things where you don’t see the damage right away. It’s more of a corrosive effect over time. You stop getting the best applicants, they go elsewhere, and projects won’t be able to do quite as much as they used to be able to do.” 

In January, Hodges estimated that the cuts would save $1 million annually.

Although many of the Museum’s researchers were hesitant to speak for the record, Naomi Miller questioned the notion that researchers ought to generate substantial income to justify their employment. “Everybody agrees that professors should get paid,” observed the 21-year veteran of MASCA. “Everybody agrees that the administrators should get paid. They don’t have to generate their own income; they’re administrators.  Everybody agrees that the support staff—security, secretaries—should get paid.  But research should be done for free? If you can generate your own money, you can do research?

“What’s lost in this discussion is, What’s the point of having a museum and what’s the point of doing research?” she added. “I think the reason you do archaeology is to learn about the different ways that people have solved the problems of existence over millennia. Modern Western society is not the pinnacle of civilization. The people who came before us, individually and collectively, created the world we live in. They invented agriculture, pottery, metallurgy, and also our means of expression, both artistic and spiritual. The people who come after us will inherit toxic waste dumps. By learning about archaeology, you get a perspective on the world that, in my opinion, is socially useful.”

That notion is one that Hodges, whose commitment to archaeology runs no less deep, would no doubt endorse. “In an ideal world we’d do everything, wouldn’t we? But we can’t,” he told the Gazette. “For instance, MASCA was set up to be a service center in archaeometric research that made money for the Museum, and in the last few years it hasn’t—and the last few years is decades. So we decided that we can’t afford to sustain that.” 

“We’ve been cutting and changing ever since I came here, with a view to redefining the mission,” he continued. “So far, we’ve done that largely on the management side of the Museum—and now we’ve started working on the Museum’s research side. Many of these are very capable people, hired on certain grounds, in certain ways, in certain forms, for completely respectable reasons. But at the end of the day, you know, you can’t sustain everyone.”


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