The Penn Museum at Home offers virtual and interactive programs during closure

Credit: Kylie Cooper

Since its temporary closure due to COVID-19, the Penn Museum has launched a new virtual platform that allows visitors to explore the museum and participate in interactive programs from home.

Founded in 1887, the Penn Museum is an archeology and anthropology museum located on the Penn campus at the intersection of 33rd Street and South Street. Since announcing its temporary closure to the public on April 10 due to the coronavirus pandemic, Museum faculty and staff have focused on expanding their online presence by offering free and accessible remote programs at the public.

The Penn Museum at Home is an initiative that advances the museum’s mission to understand the human experience, wrote Penn Museum public relations director Jill DiSanto in an email to The Daily Pennsylvanian.

“It’s something we’ve never done before so it was an exciting opportunity for us to pivot quickly. By adding technology to the mix, we were able to virtually share our work, research, expertise and public programs with people around the world, ”DiSanto wrote.

Penn Museum Director of Learning and Public Engagement Ellen Owens said the museum has put more emphasis on its virtual platform over the past decade by posting lectures on YouTube, in addition to organizing teleconferences for local schools and community centers.

Due to past experience of increasing virtual offerings, the museum already had staff members skilled in digital education when COVID-19 hit the city, Owens said. However, they still had to make many changes, including training all staff on new platforms and developing museum programs accessible to a wider audience.

“Museums tend to move very slowly – they like to get it right the first time. But obviously that circumstance didn’t really make it possible to do the most perfect thing from the start, ”said Owens.

Some of the new virtual programs offered include a daily three-minute exploration of an artifact titled Digital Daily Digs, a family-focused project called At-Home Anthropology for Kids, a history video lecture series titled Great Catastrophes, and a monthly book club conference that will run until December.

Ana Gomez, a sophomore from Rising College and marketing and communications intern from the Penn Museum, helped promote the events and programs as they went virtual. Gomez has worked remotely on projects for the museum, including creating Zoom backgrounds, uploading material for digital events, and tweeting from the museum’s Twitter account.

Owens said a new feature of the Penn Museum’s remote hardware is the weekly Living Room lecture series, where a museum expert hosts an informal chat on Facebook Live during happy hour every Thursday evening. The live broadcasts are then uploaded to the Penn Museum’s website so that those without a Facebook account can access them.

“It started out as a crazy idea, and we really didn’t know if people would like it. But people are so interested and we have people all over the world listening, ”Owens said.

Owens said the show’s lectures contrast with the formal, sometimes intimidating, feeling of going to a museum, reflecting the museum’s priority of increasing access to its materials. Owens said almost all of the programs on offer are either free or paid, and are available to Museum members and non-members through multiple platforms.

“We feel very lucky and grateful for all the support. Everyone at the museum and educators got to immerse themselves in it very quickly, ”said Owens. “It’s exciting because the things that we have created have a lifespan that will last much longer than this period. ”

Owens said staff don’t know when the Penn Museum will be able to reopen, but a 40-person task force has been formed to describe how the museum will operate when it is safe enough to do so.

“We have a phased plan, with staff first, then general visitors, before eventually adding groups,” Owens said. “But we are in no rush and we will listen to the experts and play by their rules.”


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Perry A. Thomasson