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The Sphinx of Ramses II Greets Guests Thanks to the Penn Museum's Face-Lift

By Kristin Detterline | February 10, 2020 | Culture Culture Feature


It took three days, at least 35 people and countless hours of preparation to move the Penn Museum’s ( most famous artifact exactly 300 feet. Now reveling in the spotlight in its new namesake gallery, the 25,000-pound Sphinx of Ramses II greets visitors at the renovated main entrance. It’s no surprise that #MeetMeAtTheSphinx has become a popular hashtag since the museum officially reopened its galleries in November. The multimillion-dollar face-lift, as part of the ongoing Building Transformation project, includes the reimagined Africa Galleries, the Mexico and Central America Gallery, and Harrison Auditorium. Surprisingly, moving the Sphinx was never part of the initial plan.

“We developed our strategic plan to overhaul several main galleries in 2014, but never questioned moving the Sphinx out of his former home in the lower Egypt Gallery, where he had been since 1926,” says Ellen Owens, the Merle-Smith director of learning and public engagement—at least not until last spring, when the museum decided to move forward with the Herculean effort after suggestions from Gluckman Tang Architects years prior to do so. By June, the Sphinx had assumed his new throne.

There is plenty to see beyond the Sphinx, starting with a new installation of 10 objects that introduces visitors to each of the Curatorial Sections of the museum. Elsewhere, Owens suggests seeing the collection of contemporary Mayan textiles because they represent traditions that carry on today, and a trio of new contemporary art installations inspired by artifacts in the Africa Galleries.

The new year begins with a variety of programs highlighting the updated galleries, including after-hours adult flashlight tours, a Galentine’s Day party Feb. 13 feteing female archaeologists and makers, and the daylong event CultureFest! African & Diasporic Cultures Feb. 15. A new Drinking and Culture series that tells the story of spirits through the lens of various civilizations launches March 19.

Having a martini while perusing priceless antiquities may be a very 21st century way to entice visitors to museums these days, but it’s all in an effort to share one of the most exciting collections of artifacts in the world with Philadelphia.

“The museum is sharing the dynamic story of humanity’s achievements,” says Jennifer Houser Wegner, PhD, and associate curator of Egyptian section. “The Penn Museum houses about a million artifacts from places all around the world—and many of the objects on display in our galleries come directly from our own archaeological excavations and anthropological expeditions, which have been carried out over the last 130 years and continue today.”

Owens adds that the Penn Museum has strived to humanize the collection at every turn. “There’s a great empathy and understanding for other cultures. It’s very much focused on the people.”