Global Conversations with: Dr. Julian Siggers, Director of the Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Kathleen Quigley, for GPA -- Dr. Julian Siggers came to Philadelphia from Toronto earlier in 2012 after accepting the position of Director of the Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. A native Brit, Dr. Siggers has extensive experience combining his passions for archaeology and the wonder of museums. GPA Executive Director Zabeth Teelucksingh interviewed Dr. Siggers on the eve of the Penn Museum's 125th Anniversary, and learned more about the Museum's international prominence as well as Dr. Siggers's vision for its future.  

Dr. Siggers, it is a pleasure to meet you here in your office at the Penn Museum, and I want to start by asking how you came to live in Philadelphia?

Well, the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology really is, without a doubt, North America’s greatest university archaeological museum. So when the opportunity came up for this position, I applied with some alacrity, because it does not really have an equal on the continent. My background is in archaeology- I taught archaeology for a number of years at the University of Toronto- but first and foremost I’m a museum guy. The opportunity to combine these two areas of expertise I have was irresistible. I’d also heard quite a lot about Philly. I have a number of friends who had studied at Penn and who were also from Philadelphia, so I knew that it was a dynamic, exciting place to live. It’s very much a city on the up, and so that appealed to me greatly, too.

In terms of your background, and you say you’re a “museum guy” and an “archaeology guy,” could you touch upon that a little bit? Perhaps talk about the places you’ve worked and excavated?

I started off at the University College London, and I did a BA and an MA there. Some of the earlier excavations I did were in the UK, but for my PhD, I went to the University of Toronto in Canada, where I really specialized in the Levant, which is Jordan, Israel, and Syria. And what I was really interested in was that transition period from when we stopped being hunter-gatherers and when we started to become farmers, which is a really pivotal moment in the human story, and it happened first in that region. But I then had a strange sort of twist in my career, when I started to work for the Discovery Channel as a host for a weekly archaeology show. And then I became interested in science engagement, and using what I’d learned to reach a much wider audience- not only through television, but through museums. I went to work for the Royal Ontario Museum in Canada. My job there, amongst other things, was to get all of the incredible research stories that were happening to a much greater audience. Not just through exhibitions, but also through all sorts of media: TV series, the web. From there I moved to the Science Museum in London in the UK, where I did a very similar thing, and that was a great experience because the museum scene in London is incredibly active and innovative, as well. I learned a great deal, and then was given an opportunity to go back to the Royal Ontario Museum, to take a vice president position there for sort of all the umbrella of education and public outreach. I was delighted to go back there, and of course now here I find myself four months into Philly.

Great, well I think you’ve come at a time when the city has momentum and sort of a Renaissance feeling. I don’t know if you’re tapped into some of that, or perhaps you’re sort of new?

My first three months I lived in Center City, right downtown, and the energy is really palpable in the air. I was delighted by everything I found there. You know its vibrant theater scene and its really engaged arts community, and what I really liked about it was just the sheer volume of cultural institutions here. And what I’ve noticed, unlike other cities, is there’s a real appetite here to work together. Usually in other cities, everybody is off doing their own thing, and here I’ve been making it my business to meet other leaders of the various cultural institutions. The first thing they say is: “we love working together.” Which is refreshing, it really is.

Yes, and I believe collaboration is a big key word with non-profits and institutions going forth. In terms of budgetary cuts and other things, that seems to me the way to go. Interestingly, the Barnes Collection was relocated from Merion to the Parkway, and there has been a lot of rejuvenation around the Parkway. The Penn Museum isn’t on the Parkway, but can you talk about how you’ve been collaborating with those institutions, and what is the dynamic?

Sure. Akey partner on the Parkway of course is the Philadelphia Museum of Art. When I was talking to Timothy Rub, the Director there, he put it very nicely in that this museum and that museum “bracket the city” in the art history world. We have an agreement to stop collecting at a certain point, which is where they start collecting. It’s a long and old established relationship. For their huge, wonderful “Arcadia” show this summer, there were a number of objects from the Penn Museum that were in it. We collaborate not only on content, but also on marketing opportunities, programming, and the like. We’ve done programming with the Franklin Institute and we’d love to work with the Barnes. The Barnes is not just paintings, but also artifacts- Roman, Egyptian, African- so we have a lot in common.

Does this museum specifically speak to your initial area of expertise in the Levant?

It does. This museum has huge strengths in the Near East. We come out of the Near East in archaeology in many ways. My first few months, I had the most enjoyable time going through the collections. What is on display is about 5% of what we have, which is quite normal for a museum.

In terms of putting the collection out there and based on your experience in Canada, what are your thoughts on how the museum plans to move ahead?

We just started the new strategic plan, and it’s probably going to take about a year. We have a number of audiences. As a research institution, we have an international obligation, and anybody who’s in the field of ancient studies knows about this museum. It’s extremely famous on the international stage. One of my obligations on the international level is to get all of the scholarly collections online, and this museum has made incredible strides with that. We currently have 600,000 of our objects available online, which gives us that global reach. The other audience is the University students, and we’re an enormous resource to them, but our collections are too rich to stop there. We have to share them with the city, with the commonwealth and with the country, as well. And that’s what we’re hoping to do- to harness a range of new technologies. And one of the things we make no bones about is that many of our galleries are quite old, and so I think we have an enormous opportunity to do something really spectacular with our existing galleries here, because the material is just so profound and wide-ranging, and unique, as well. There’s a first-year textbook that every art history student has got by a bloke called Janson. And you’ll open that, and one of the first things you’ll see is one of our objects, which is the “Ram in the Thicket.” It’s an incredible piece of global history. With the importance of the collection, I think we have a real responsibility here at Penn to share this with as wide an audience as we possibly can.

Since you’ve lived in other global cities- you mentioned Toronto and London and now Philadelphia- would you describe how Philadelphia measures up to your other experiences?

I think Philadelphia really stacks up nicely with those other cities. You really feel as though you are in a global hub here. Everything comes through here, people are very interested in the city when you go abroad. It has a unique size, and one thing that I really like about it is that it has this dynamic downtown core, and I haven’t really seen that before. I live an eight minute walk from the museum across the South Street Bridge, and you can do that here. I’ve lived in London, and I’m very fond of it, but it’s so vast. And there if you are, say, a museum person, your field of interaction will be within your field, whereas here the cross-fertilization is a bit more profound, because of Philadelphia’s manageable size, probably. In that way it’s like Toronto, as well. The other similarity I see with all of these cities is of course their incredible diversity. London is an unbelievable melting pot, and now Toronto, I believe, is the most diverse city on the planet. I was hoping to find that in Philadelphia, too, and I have. A different type of diversity, but diverse nonetheless.

As a traveler, is there any kind of gizmo you can’t live without in order to manage and juggle everything?

It is an iPhone. Quite prosaic, but kind of indispensable.

In terms of restaurants, is there anything you’ve found in Philadelphia that you really love?

Tons. I really love this Israeli restaurant, Zahav. There is also a fantastic Vietnamese restaurant in Chinatown, I think it is just called Vietnam Restaurant. Toronto has a huge Vietnamese community, and I was wondering if I’d be able to get food as good, and this is excellent. There’s also a really good South Indian restaurant here called Philadelphia Chutney Company, which is on Sansom and which I found quite by accident. It was great. One of the best gastropubs I’ve ever been into, London or otherwise, is the Dandelion, and that’s really, really good. If I’m feeling a bit homesick for anything, I just drop in there.

What kind of reputation does Philadelphia have in Toronto?

Everybody knows about Philly in Toronto. They know about Philly for the cultural institutions. The PMA is such a spectacular art museum, so everyone knows about that. Also the Barnes does a great deal for awareness of Philly in Canada. The first thing that my friends from Toronto want to do is go to these three museums. And of course there is the historical element. The Old City is a huge draw. My wife is a sculptor and she was very excited to come here because there’s a very dynamic, contemporary art scene here. There’s kind of a real buzz in Toronto’s artistic community about what’s going on in Philly. I would say there’s huge awareness.

Is there a favorite piece for you in the museum?

It’s very difficult for me to pick, because it changes every week. I was just given a tour of the Egypt collection by our very famous Egyptologist David Silverman, and he was explaining to me the story behind this incredible seated statue of Ramses II. As you walk into the Egyptian sculpture court, it dominates the whole gallery. It is such a significant piece that I was just shocked to see it here. That happens all the time. There is another seated Egyptian god called Sekhmet, and an international museum would be really lucky to have one of the quality we have, and we have six or something. So that piece this week is my current favorite!

This interview with Dr. Julian Siggers has been edited and condensed from its original version. Edited by Kathy Quigley for GPA.