Penn Museum welcomes a new director — and the Gazette Arts Blog looks back on those who preceded him

As of this summer, the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology will have a new director.

Julian Siggers — “a pioneer in advancing public engagement with museums and archaeology” — will officially assume the post on July 1. He is currently the vice president for programs, education and content communication at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. In that role, he has created partnerships with government agencies, secured a weekly show on the Discovery Channel and directed a Dead Sea Scrolls project that helped the museum attract more visitors than it had in 20 years.

He’ll be joining the Penn Museum in the middle of a busy year. The museum turned 125 this year and on Saturday, its newest exhibition opened to the public. (For an in-depth look at the new show, MAYA 2012 Lords of Time, check out this feature in the May|June Gazette.)

The combination of Siggers’ appointment and the museum’s banner anniversary made us curious about the cultural institution’s past leaders. We’ll be sharing a few of their stories in the coming months, starting today with George Byron Gordon.

Born in Canada in 1870, Gordon went on to study at Harvard during the late 19th century. In 1892, he traveled to Copan, Honduras, for a Harvard-sponsored excavation led by John G. Owens. When Owens died in the field, Gordon assumed leadership and directed the next six sessions in Copan.

He became an assistant curator at the Free Museum of Science and Art (later reclassified as the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology) in 1903 and led expeditions to Alaska in 1905 and 1907 with his brother, MacLaren Gordon. On a trip down the Yukon River in their canoe (named the Penn), the brothers discovered a previously unknown source of the Kuskokwim River and an equally unknown tribe of people who they called “Kuskwagamutes.”

Gordon began teaching at Penn in 1907, offering the first regular anthropology lectures for undergraduate and graduate students. Shortly after the Department of Anthropology was established, he became the museum’s director in 1910. In that role, he enhanced the museum’s reputation and its collections, purchasing artifacts from Mesopotamia, Palestine, Egypt and the Americas and establishing the museum’s Chinese collection.

In 1926, the University conferred the honorary degree of Doctor of Science on Gordon. He died the following year after an accident at the Philadelphia Racquet Club. By then, he was supervising field work in Bet Sh’ean and Ur.

The Penn Museum’s G.B. Gordon Central America collection includes diaries, survey notes, reports and stories from his Copan Expeditions and Yucatan Expedition (1910), along with Gordon’s original stories, articles and book reviews. It also features Gordon’s introductions for speakers in the museum’s Saturday Afternoon Lecture Series, his speeches to professional organizations and his class lectures.

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