Penn museum to share cultural treasures via internet

PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - The University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology is dragging itself into the 21st century with an ambitious plan to share its treasures with the world via the internet.

The museum, a national and world leader in its field since its founding in 1887, in September will begin creating a “digital spine” in which all of its approximately 1 million objects will be catalogued on the internet.

The idea, said the museum’s new director Richard Hodges, is to open up its dazzling collection of artifacts to scholars, researchers, and the general public around the world who have been unable to access it either because they are not in Philadelphia or because 95 percent of the objects are in storage.

The creation of an internet catalogue will provide unprecedented access to objects that represent the cultural heritage of civilizations that have been the source for the museum’s many archaeological expeditions to remote parts of the world during the last 121 years.

The project, costing an estimated $7-10 million, is scheduled to take three years.

“At Penn Museum, we have an extraordinary depository of shared cultural heritage,” Hodges said. “We have an obligation to take a leadership role in working with scholars, educational organizations and emerging countries to discover and sometimes reclaim cultural heritage.”

Among the artifacts to be digitized will be the treasures from the royal tombs of Ur in southern Iraq, a famous collection from the Sumerian civilization of around 2500 BC, which was discovered in a joint expedition by Penn Museum and the British archaeologist C. Leonard Woolley in the late 1920s.

The Ur collection, which toured the U.S. in the 1990s, includes a bull-headed lyre, one of the oldest musical instruments in the world, an elaborate headdress, and jewelry of gold, lapis-luzuli, and carnelian.

Other objects from the Ur excavation are held in Baghdad, and at the British Museum, which is working with the Penn museum to create one virtual collection.

The new digital catalogue will also include objects from the museum’s excavation of a pre-Columbian cemetery in Panama in the 1940s. That collection, shown to the public in the Rivers of Gold exhibition in 2007, contains 120 gold artifacts including plaques, nose ornaments, pendants and beads, as well as painted ceramics and objects made of bone, ivory and semi-precious stones.

Although the most famous treasures are on display in the museum on Penn campus in west Philadelphia, the vast majority are held in storage among miles of shelving and climate-controlled cabinets hidden away in labyrinthine basements.

Hodges, who is on a five-year secondment from the University of East Anglia in England, also plans to digitize the archaeological records from the hundreds of expeditions that brought the artifacts back to Philadelphia. Among those records are notebooks containing an estimated 100 yards of hand-written pages recording the museum’s excavations at the Mayan ruins of Tikal in Guatemala between 1956 and 1970.

“That’s the hard bit,” Hodges said.

Reporting by Jon Hurdle; editing by Patricia Reaney; Reuters Messaging: