Penn Museum moves history (carefully) to make way for future
When David P. Silverman translated mystical writings on the side of a 4,000-year-old Egyptian coffin recently, he discovered a plea to the earth god, Geb.
The long-ago writer sought protection for the coffin's inhabitant, a district governor named Ahanakht.
But these days, the words could just as easily mean protection from the trembling earth next door.
University City is the site of yet another construction project. This time, it's the demolition of the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania's Penn Tower complex, in order to make way for a new patient pavilion.
Curators are in the midst of a yearlong effort to examine, stabilize, and move thousands of objects to safety, lest they fall victim to the vibrations from jackhammers and other machinery.
One day this week, staffers placed the pieces of Ahanakht's cedar coffin onto Styrofoam supports that were evenly spaced on a wooden pallet, in preparation for the move to an undisclosed storage space off-site. Sitting nearby, conservator Alexis North carefully reattached loose paint on a 4,000-year-old wooden boat model so that it, too, could be moved safely.
Preparations began last spring, when the museum installed vibration sensors throughout the sprawling burgundy-brick complex on South Street, with guidance from Columbia University civil engineering professor Andrew W. Smyth.
The threshold of concern varies by location, but generally the sensors are set to send out alerts if vibrations exceed 2 millimeters per second. Problems could arise from one single large impact at the construction site next door, or even from low-level sustained rumbling, Smyth said.
"You can have situations where objects can walk around on shelves," Smyth said.
So far, no artifacts have suffered harm, even as workers have dismantled a parking garage behind the hospital tower, said Robert Thurlow, the museum's special projects coordinator and project leader. Vibrations appeared excessive on several occasions, so construction was temporarily halted to make sure nothing was amiss, he said.
Patrick Dorris, Penn Medicine's associate vice president for real estate, design, and construction, said he was happy to cooperate.
"If something has to stop, we'll stop it," Dorris said.
Head conservator Lynn Grant, Thurlow, and other museum officials determined that they would need to move 50,000 artifacts for the duration - 45,000 from Egypt, the rest of Asian origin. Most are going to the off-site storage spot, though some will be relocated to safer places within the museum, farther from the walls adjacent to the hospital construction site.
In some cases, exhibit supports have been rebuilt or replaced. Where necessary, cantilevered shelves made of glass have been exchanged for others made of wood or acrylic, which are less vulnerable to vibrations.
Workers also placed a layer of shock-absorbent material beneath a set of glazed ceramic horses from China's Tang Dynasty. Conservators now are examining a pair of 16-foot-high Buddhist murals to prepare for their move in June.
The move is giving curators a chance to tidy up inventories, and in some cases to gaze upon objects for the first time since archaeologists brought them to Philadelphia from distant lands.
Silverman, the curator-in-charge for the museum's Egyptian section, recently came across a scarab - a beetle-shaped stone from more than 3,000 years ago. On its underside was written a spell for becoming a phoenix in the afterlife. It is one of only four such examples in the world, he said.
Asked what the big move will cost, museum officials were a bit cagey.
"You can never really know because there are so many unknowns with it," Thurlow said.
But surely there is a budget?
"More than you'd think," said Grant, the head conservator. "And perhaps less than we might need."