The Power of a Collection: What Bringing Beth Shean To Life Taught Me
Semester: Spring 2023
Praxis Course: HART 420 Museum Studies Fieldwork Seminar
Faculty Advisors: Matthew Feliz & Monique Scott
Field Site: The Penn Museum
Field Supervisor: Katherine Blanchard
In the spirit of honesty, I’ll confess that I came into the museum studies praxis seminar by accident. Last fall, I was looking to expand my knowledge of museum studies, and the praxis seminar was the only available class. In a whirlwind of interviews, emails and assists from my faculty advisors, I connected with my field advisor, Katy Blanchard, about an internship in the
Penn Museum’s Near Eastern collections. I went into the experience without much knowledge of near eastern archeological material and a keen desire to observe museum operations from the inside. Ultimately the internship offered me a chance both to learn about the Near East and
explore the inner workings of the Museum as much as I wanted. However, most importantly, the opportunity showed me how much work goes into even the smallest, most easily taken-for-granted aspects of Museum operations, and how even this largely invisible work, can change a museum for the better.
My work at Penn primarily contributed to a single project, the continuing effort to re-inventory, photograph, and rehouse material from the site of Beth Shean in Northern Israel. The Beth Shean material is a cornerstone of the Penn’s Near Eastern collection. As I learned through digital and on-site research, Beth Shean was continuously occupied from the late Neolithic period through the middle ages. Thus, the archeological material I worked with records a progression of visual culture through man’s earliest discoveries, the Egyptian colonial period in Israel, the rise of Judaism, Greek colonization of the eastern Mediterranean, Roman colonization, and the rise of the Byzantine Empire. This makes these objects critical subjects of research, useful educational tools, and beautiful, enlightening features in museum exhibitions.
This, I came to realize, was the importance of my work. The photographs I was taking with my colleague, Nyla Mcneil, opened these valuable objects up to new attention from researchers, curators, and professors. Moreover, through shadowing my field advisor in meetings, doing an informational interview with the brain behind the Penn’s community outreach initiatives, and reading about the museum throughout the semester, I observed a will to revitalize the Penn and reinvent the institution as an asset to the community at large. I realized that my work, though it may seem small, was a crucial element of this. Photographing objects brought them to life and gave the world outside of the Penn’s archives a chance to understand these
pieces of history.
I also learned a lot of useful, practical information about the inner workings of the Penn and museums like it. I will certainly use this newfound knowledge of things like exhibition design, archival techniques, object handling, and industry standards in future positions with material closer to my area of study. However, I’m most proud to take away the knowledge that
every bit of work done in a museum can contribute to the desperately necessary democratization of these institutions. In my future, I hope to apply this principle in every area of museum work I can.