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Philadelphia’s legacy art museums work to attract a woke generation with frank talk and better amenities | Inga Saffron

There’s a reason that the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Penn Museum are opening new, more accessible entrances.

A view of the entrance after the recent renovation at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia, PA on November 11, 2019. The renovation included moving the Sphinx which is pictured in the background.
A view of the entrance after the recent renovation at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia, PA on November 11, 2019. The renovation included moving the Sphinx which is pictured in the background.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

This is a transformational time for Philadelphia’s legacy art and science museums. The information that these institutions once hoarded is now easily available on every cell phone. As old hierarchies crumble, they can no longer claim to serve as the sole, or even dominant, arbiters of taste and history. Meanwhile, there is ever more competition for the public’s leisure time.

All that makes it harder to entice a new generation reared with a finely tuned radar for racial and cultural biases into their monumental buildings. Designed in the early 20th century to resemble classical temples, these big storehouses of art and artifacts can come across as cold and intimidating places, not to mention, relics of a more imperially minded age. Their informational texts often seem as inscrutable as ancient Greek.

And then there are the stairs.

The profound changes taking place across American society help explain why two of the city’s most important museums — the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Penn Museum — are both in the middle of major projects to reorganize their interior spaces and rethink how their collections are presented to the public. It’s no accident that both museums started by installing new entrances that make it easier to walk in off the street and head straight for the galleries.

In September, the Art Museum “took the temple off the hill,” in the words of COO Gail Harrity, by opening a long-shuttered, street-level portal on Kelly Drive. As much as Philadelphians profess to love the “Rocky” stairs, they have never been all that crazy about scaling those 72 limestone steps to the museum’s imposing, columned front door. The new entrance, located just off the Schuylkill River Trail, in a beautifully landscaped cove designed by Olin architects, offers a less formal, and less formidable, path into the museum. Once inside, a skylit coffee bar beckons. With its glowing vaulted ceiling, the space evokes the moody beauty of one of Philadelphia’s great industrial ruins.

This weekend, the Penn Museum will show off the initial phase of its planned renovations, the first real overhaul in the 120-year history of its Wilson Eyre-designed building. Although the street-level doorway on 33rd Street won’t be done for several months, New York’s Gluckman Tang Architects have reconstructed the South Street entrance to offer visitors a more gracious welcome into its sprawling, arts-and-crafts style building. You still must climb a short staircase, but the new lobby is brighter and more streamlined, and it puts you face-to-face with the museum’s prized possession: a 13-ton Egyptian sphinx, the largest of the stone beasts owned by an American museum.

Many of the improvements in the two museums will sound almost mundane. Both have spent a sizable chunk of their renovation budgets to add restrooms, elevators, and ramps. These were necessary improvements to make their sometimes awkward, early-20th-century interiors accessible to everyone, and thereby, more democratic. The Penn Museum, which opened its first wing in 1899, has finally gotten around to installing air-conditioning, too. Because temperatures in the brick-lined galleries could reach as high as 90 degrees, it used to offer discounted tickets — and a free bottle of water — to lure visitors inside during the summer months.

Unlike the Art Museum, the Penn Museum started out as a research institution, an arm of the University of Pennsylvania’s anthropology department. While it was always open to the public, it treated the museum part of its mission as a bother. Even with busloads of schoolchildren to fill its galleries, the Penn Museum manages to attract only 200,000 visitors a year. The renovations are meant to double that number, director Julian Siggers promises.

As part of its effort to act like a public-facing institution, it has completely modernized its Harrison auditorium, a spectacular circular theater whose ceiling features an innovative, tiled dome built in 1915 by Rafael Guastavino. The exhibits are friendlier and include more interactive features. Push a button and white lights outline the glyphs on a Mexican stele.

Both museums now have spare, but spacious, lobbies where visitors have plenty of room to settle their minds and transition from the noisy street to the serene galleries. More important, the lobbies serve as launchpads for new circulation routes through the buildings. Ideally, the reorganized pathways should make navigating the massive, multiroom buildings more intuitive.

At the Penn Museum, Gluckman Tang removed the large, redundant staircase in the middle of the lobby. That allowed the engineers at Keast & Hood to reinforce the floor to support the sphinx, carved from red granite 3,200 years ago for Egypt’s most important pharaoh, Ramesses II. A pair of staircases along the side walls take you directly to the galleries, or you can opt for the elevator, tucked behind the sphinx.

Although the architects for both projects are well-known museum designers (Frank Gehry’s firm is overseeing the Art Museum work), there is very little ego in the two designs. The renovations have been done in service of the collections and allow curators to present artifacts in a way that is more aligned with current sensibilities.

Because the Art Museum still has another year of work left to do, the new approach is more evident at the Penn Museum. As part of this $23 million phase, the museum reinstalled its African, Mexican, and Central American galleries. While the same objects are on back on display, the context has been dramatically altered.

Instead of presenting the artifacts as trophy finds from Indiana Jones-style research expeditions, the informational texts openly acknowledge that archaeology is often an exploitative, colonial exercise, with racist undertones. “We do know that some of this material, especially from Benin (West Africa), was taken by force in 1897 by a British punitive expedition,” Kate Quinn, the Penn Museum’s exhibitions director, told me. “It was pillaged from the palace structure.”

Although there has been plenty of hand-wringing in the museum world about the treatment of non-Western cultures, Quinn believes that the Penn Museum is the first in the United States to explicitly acknowledge the less-than-savory means used to assemble its collection of antiquities. Before reinstalling the Africa collection, Quinn and her colleagues surveyed thousands of visitors about the museum’s past behavior and contextualization of cultural artifacts.

As a result, the wall text in the Africa gallery minces no words. These objects, it says, “were created in or taken out of Africa during periods of enslavement and colonialism. ... You are invited to consider how these objects were made, who made them, and how they came to be in front of you today.” In a similar gesture of contrition, a new wall plaque in the lobby acknowledges that the museum is built on land that was the ancestral home of the Unami Lenape people.

Although the issues are slightly different, the Art Museum also is planning to reorganize its galleries to make them more inclusive. More non-male, nonwhite, non-Western artists will be represented, and more nontraditional art forms will be integrated into the mix, using an approach pioneered at the newly reopened Museum of Modern Art in New York.

The Art Museum’s focus on diversity and inclusion is already paying off, according to Harrity. Nearly a third of its visitors are people of color. Perhaps even more remarkable, its total audience is growing younger; two-thirds are now between 18 and 34, a coveted group.

Of course, the Penn Museum has promised to make itself more accessible to the public before, yet never followed through. For years, the museum was “incredibly intimidating,” Quinn acknowledges, and made people feel unwelcome. “Maybe you can’t change the building, but you can change the brand,” she argues. Last week, for the first time, the museum installed a modern sign on the wall that surrounds its compound. That’s a first step.