Victoria Meng: Life at the Penn Museum


Photography, Video and Text by Victoria Meng, Copyright 2017




Sometimes on rainy afternoons in the Penn Museum, when the air is more musty than usual, and the light is just dim enough, I feel as if I can almost hear the alluring whisper of the past, the echo of music and laughter from a forgotten era.

On my first day of work at the Penn Museum, my boss took me on a tour. As we walked among the cool, darkened hallways that house over a million artifacts, I learned about the museum’s illustrious history.

At the end of the 19th century, Provost William Pepper commissioned the museum as a humble way to house artifacts. Through the course of the next few decades, the Penn Museum would evolve into a prestigious institution where Philadelphia’s elite could ascend to higher society.

From the exotic architectural motifs to the smallest details in building fixtures, the Penn Museum would’ve been an incredible marvel at the time that it was constructed. Complete with mosaics designed by Tiffanys, seemingly no expense was spared in creating an “eclectic Victorian extravaganza.”

Yet, as I recount my memory of the museum tour, I remember one detail in particular.

In 1929, Alexander Stirling Calder, was commissioned to create a statue for the European gallery. While his father was known for putting William Penn on top of City Hall and his son reached international acclaim for his mobiles, Stirling made his own statement with a depiction of a Greek maiden styled like a Roaring 20s flapper.

Ironically, it was this anachronistic detail that really became my inspiration. This proof that the museum had once been a backdrop for Gatsby-scale parties made history more real to me than ever before. In fact, the more I looked into the Museum during this era, the more true life became stranger than fiction.

At one point in the early 20th century, a glamorous reception attracted more than eight hundred guests. Two of these guests, perhaps under the influence of too much champagne, allegedly climbed on top of and eventually collapsed ancient Chinese tomb figures of camels. While the ruins were eventually restored to original condition, this raucous memory lives on in my imagination.

Ultimately, my inspiration for my portraits was derived from the Museum’s core mission: to help us remember who we are and where we came from. The more I learn about anthropology, the more I realize that although the way that we live has changed greatly, who we are as humans has hardly wavered.



Portrait of Victoria Meng by Simeon Ristic, Copyright 2017


About The Author: Victoria Meng is a Sophomore enrolled in the Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania, Class of 2020.

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