Penn brings wonders of ancient history to Philadelphia students and families

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

A new program at the Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology allows Philadelphia 7th graders and their families to experience the wonders of ancient Egypt and Rome for free.

On Tuesday, the University of Pennsylvania launched “Unpacking the Past,” a $2.2 million initiative that provides 7th-grade students in the School District of Philadelphia and schools run by KIPP and Mastery Charter schools with hands-on, curriculum-focused learning experiences using museum resources to make history come alive.

Everything from bus transportation to the museum to classroom instruction from Penn educators is free, seeded by an initial $1 million grant from the Annenberg Foundation. Upon completion of the project, students and their teachers receive one-year memberships to the museum, a pass that also includes unlimited general admission for family members and other museum discounts.

Museum director Julian Siggers, standing in front of a granite sphinx excavated from Egypt, spoke about the importance of this partnership at a time when rising costs to cultural institutions can be a barrier to many schools in a district wracked by a financial crisis.

“We have to focus in on what we can best serve, so we chose the 7th grade, because this is the time when students study ancient cultures, including ancient Egypt and the Roman world,” said Siggers. “History comes to life when you’re actually studying real objects.”

Superintendent William Hite, who attended the launch, emphasized the program’s zero cost to students and their parents, while praising the relevance of the learning opportunities.

“This is an experience that allows our children to really engage in what they are learning in the classroom and allows us to expand the classrooms beyond just the walls and doors of the schools.”

The multi-step program offers teachers professional development days at the museum, where educators can explore the museum’s collections and resources, meet with curators and field researchers, as well as take workshops to learn more about the program.

Students will get lessons at their school from Penn educators, who will arrive in style driving a custom-made “Mummy Mobile.” A field trip to the museum comes with a guided tour and hands-on workshops. Students leave with school supplies and their one-year memberships. They will wrap up the program with projects to be showcased later at the museum.

"Unpacking the Past" is designed to help students discover more about the ancient past while complementing “Common Core” standards in language arts, math, and science. The program, which has been running pilot pieces since the spring, hopes to reach upwards of 10,000 Philadelphia students and their teachers every year.

“This is the kind of program that exemplifies the promise of the Penn Compact 2020, and showcases what Penn is uniquely qualified to do: Share its deep history and educational resources to make a positive difference in the local community,” said Amy Guttman, University of Pennsylvania president.

Seventh-grade teachers interested in the program for their students can email, or call the Museum’s Learning Programs Department at 215.898.4033.

Shannon Nolan is an intern at the Notebook.