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Penn Museum solves the mystery of the locked suitcase

M. Louise Baker may not be a name that resonates with most people.

She is no Al Capone.

But when the University of Pennsylvania Museum had an opportunity to acquire a mysterious Baker valise, unopened for more than a half-century, officials didn't bat an eye.

The archaeological illustrator from the early 1900s is "one of the heroes of the museum," said Pam Kosty, museum spokeswoman.

"She was probably the best archaeological illustrator of her time," said Alessandro Pezzati, the museum's senior archivist, who decided it would be a splendid idea to open the valise during one of his Friday talks and demonstrations called "Unearthed in the Archives."

What better way to entice visitors to learn about the archives than to invite them to view the Mystery of the Baker Valise – Solved!

What could be in the mysterious travel bag, covered with stickers from the Red Hotel in Odessa, the Hotel Victoria Warszawa, and elsewhere?

Certainly not bars of gold or Mayan treasure or ancient Nubian jewelry. Surely not enigmatic fragments from the Royal Tombs of Ur – all projects that Baker visited and rendered in watercolor and pen-and-ink drawings of exquisite detail and modeling.

So at 2:21 Friday afternoon, Pezzati took the sturdy valise out of an unopened box, found the two keys to its  locked latches, and tried to open it.

The locks did not budge. Nor would they.

But after much effort, and some banging and archival angst, Pezzati employed a sturdy screwdriver and considerable elbow grease, finally popping both locks. The 25 or 30 people gathered in the room applauded, edged closer, and peered into the now-exposed interior.

There was more than the nothing of Al Capone's Vault. The valise held photographic negatives of unknown children and people, a clipping of a news story about one of Baker's projects, and a letter she wrote from shipboard in the storm-tossed Mediterranean Sea on her way to Haifa, Israel, more than 75 years ago.

"She traveled everywhere," said Pezzati. "Berlin, the Yucatan, Mexico, Guatemala, Iraq. Nothing scared her. She was a remarkable woman."

Baker came to Philadelphia from Ohio, attended art school, and  joined the museum in 1908, hired by curator and director George Byron Gordon, who wanted her to render images of the Mayan pottery in the collection. Gordon sent her to Europe and Central America to find and document more Mayan pottery, featuring her beautiful images in mammoth folio volumes Gordon compiled on the subject.

Sir C. Leonard Woolley, who headed the joint British Museum-Penn Museum excavations of the Royal City of Ur in the 1920s and 1930s, was also highly partial to Baker, deeming her the only artist with whom he would publish.

The museum has about 500 examples of her work, as well as a large archive of her personal letters, scrapbooks, and photographs, an unpublished autobiography, and 54 volumes of her diaries.

"She was a feminist and a Quaker," said Pezzati. "She called everyone Thee and Thou."

"She was the best," said Pezzati. "That's what Leonard Woolley said, and looking at these drawings and paintings, they are fantastic. Each one seems better than the one before."