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Penn Museum has hired its first Black director, who pivoted from physics to antiquities

Christopher Woods has been running Chicago's renowned Oriental Institute since 2017. He walked away from physics to make a career of his college hobby: the ancient Sumerian language.

Christopher Woods, center, speaks with journalists in 2019 during a ceremony to unveil ancient clay tablets that were returned to Iran by the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute.  (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)
Christopher Woods, center, speaks with journalists in 2019 during a ceremony to unveil ancient clay tablets that were returned to Iran by the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)Read moreAP

It wouldn’t seem to be the obvious career move for a kid growing up in Brooklyn and Queens. But for Christopher Woods, who has just been named the new director of the Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology — the first Black director to head the institution — it was a passion.

Who wouldn’t fall in love with decoding a dead language incised on ancient clay tablets?

Woods went to college at Yale and graduated with a degree in physics, then headed back to New York to analyze patents for a law firm. But he kept hearing the siren call of the ancient Near East, a subject he’d grown fond of as a sort of “hobby” in college, he says.

He made the decision to forgo physics and returned to graduate school at Harvard to study Sumerian language and literature, obtaining a doctorate in Assyriology in 2001. After that, he joined the faculty at the University of Chicago, wrote and published such titles as The Grammar of Perspective: The Sumerian Conjugation Prefixes as a System of Voice, and — most importantly for the Penn Museum — has served as director of Chicago’s renowned Oriental Institute since 2017.

Amy Gutmann, university president, and Wendell Pritchett, Penn provost, each lauded Woods as the leader who could shepherd the museum to a new level of visibility within the university and the region as a whole. The stakes are high. The museum is in the midst of a multiyear renovation project, which not only reimagines its fabled galleries, but also literally rearranges them.

The $100 million renovation project, announced in 2017, has already seen some public spaces and several galleries reopen. With about $70 million in capital expenditures to go, the building transformation project, as it is called, has already changed the museum’s face – its famous red granite sphinx now greets visitors in the entrance hall, a harbinger of mysteries within.

Woods, 52, is no stranger to such institution-wide refurbishment and reimagining. He successfully guided Chicago’s Oriental Institute through a similar, although less extensive, project, a factor that Penn officials no doubt found intriguing.

He has also had to cope with the colonialist past of institutional collecting. At Penn, for instance, amid public concerns expressed by student and community activists, the museum is in the midst of determining what to do with a collection of skulls that includes the remains of enslaved Cubans and indigent Black and white Philadelphians.

At the Oriental Institute, Woods was intimately involved in the protracted return of thousands of artifacts to Iran. They had been excavated by Chicago archaeologists at Persepolis in the 1930s and then loaned to the university for analysis. Return became increasingly problematic in the recent decades of U.S.-Iranian tensions and lawsuits brought in U.S. courts.

Thousands of artifacts have been returned to Iran over a period of 40 years, most recently in 2019. ”We fought very hard to keep them safe and spent millions of dollars [in litigation] so that we could return them,” Woods said at the time.

Woods has not yet left that Chicago for Philadelphia. He starts in April. The Inquirer spoke with him by phone early this month and reconnected briefly following this week’s news about a report published on the Penn website identifying the skeletal remains of Black Philadelphians among those in the museum’s Morton Collection of skulls. (The conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and concision.)

So why’d you leave the Oriental Institute?

You know, the Penn Museum is a place that I’ve known since I was a graduate student; it’s always been a place of reverence for me. It has this great storied past, magnificent collection, and this long tradition of groundbreaking research. And, you know, I’m a faculty member also and Sumerologist, which means that I study the earliest phases of Mesopotamian history — the Sumerian language, things written in the Sumerian language, primarily. And Penn is the great center for all things Sumerian because they have all the literary tablets.

But the Oriental Institute has an enormous collection of artifacts and a dedicated cohort of scholars and researchers as well.

The Penn Museum is global in its scope. That’s what really attracts me to it. It’s not because of the Sumerian collection or the Near Eastern collection, as great as that is, as near and dear to my heart as it is, but it’s really the opportunity to engage with other collections, other research, other faculty. Museum work is about telling stories. This opens up the entire world for you at the Penn Museum. So it was really an opportunity that I felt compelled to seize.

The museum has struggled for decades to become more of a destination in Philadelphia. Is that something that you are going to address?

One of the things when I became director of the OI [Oriental Institute] that was so exciting was the OI centennial in 2019. I knew that my term would be defined by that. It was really exciting because one of my goals was to really leverage the centennial to really increase the visibility and profile of the OI. And now at Penn there’s this amazing building transformation project, over $100 million is being poured into the museum.

It’s an opportunity to shepherd that through to completion, beginning with the Egyptian galleries, which is right up my alley, and then continue on to the Asian galleries, which will be something new for me, and then being able to take all of that work, and really bring the museum to a new level.

So what ways do you entice a potential audience?

There are a lot of things we did for the centennial that I’m looking forward to continuing, or doing differently but in the same vein, at Penn. There’s a current relevance to the research into the collections and that’s what people want to see: How does it bear upon our world now? What does it mean to me? What’s its importance now?

One of the ways in which you tell that story, or can tell that story, is with engagement with contemporary art. So, for instance, one of the things that we did in the OI was to collaborate with a number of Middle Eastern artists — major figures like Michael Rakowitz, Mohamad Hafez, and some who are not Middle Eastern, like Ann Hamilton — and allow them to engage with our collections, either by looking at them from a contemporary perspective, or ways in which they connect in with contemporary issues, like the Syrian civil war, ISIS, these types of things. I’m looking forward to doing that at Penn as well.

How do you attract larger numbers of people of color?

The issue you raise is a very important one that museums everywhere are facing — namely, how to be more accessible and welcoming to all groups, particularly people of color who have often felt excluded from museums and other cultural institutions. Diversifying the museum’s audience and membership will be a top priority of mine, especially in terms of visitation, educational programming, and supporting new initiatives targeted to community outreach, such as the West Philadelphia Community Archaeology Project.

In 2019, Chicago returned about 2,000 clay tablets to Iran. Penn is currently dealing with a related issue involving the Morton skull collection. Many in the Penn community have called for repatriation of the Cuban remains, which Penn is considering now. What do you think?

What’s happening now is that a committee has been put together to look at the issue to make a recommendation to me and then to the provost, so I’ll have that report. But I would say more broadly that I think you have to look at each one of these instances on a case-by-case basis. There really isn’t a one-size-fits-all or blanket statement or policy. I think you have to look at the legality of the situation, the ethics of it, what is the right thing to do. I think we always want to do the right thing.

Sometimes people might insist on a repatriation of something that is not even possible. And it’s also very important to be consultative, right? This isn’t a decision that I would ever want to make on my on my own. I would want to hear from all sides, and come down on what I think is the right thing to do. In all cases, you need to treat these types of requests with earnestness and seriousness and be sure that they’re given the attention that they deserve.

A recently released research report, put together by the Penn Medicine and the Afterlives of Slavery Project, states the skulls of more than a dozen Black Philadelphians are contained in the collection. What should be done in the wake of that finding?

I would simply add that I am in full support of the museum’s stance, namely, to include information from this independent student research as the museum takes important steps towards repatriation and reburial.