Penn Museum program takes Philly students back in time for hands-on tour of ancient world

Seventh-grade students across the School District of Philadelphia can travel back in time and explore Ancient Rome and Ancient Egypt through the Penn Museum’s new “Unpacking the Past” program.

The three-year, $2.2 million project, open to all seventh-graders in the school district and at Mastery and KIPP charter schools, includes classroom visits and Museum tours for students, and professional development and workshops for teachers. Funding was provided by the Annenberg Foundation, individual donors, the Museum’s Women’s Committee, and PECO.

Julian Siggers, the Williams Director of the Museum, says the organizers chose seventh grade because it is a time when many students are studying ancient cultures.

“History comes to life when you’re actually studying real objects,” he says. “When you see them, it is the real thing that makes for these compelling education opportunities.”

“Unpacking the Past” begins with a classroom outreach lesson. Specially trained Museum educators arrive at a school in a “mummy mobile” and conduct in-class seminars to familiarize students with the skills they will need to study ancient objects.

The centerpiece of the program is a student field trip to the Museum, which features interactive guided tours of the galleries and hands-on workshops.

On a recent Tuesday in late October, a seventh-grade class from Penn Alexander School was finishing up the last leg of their gallery tour as the school district-Museum partnership was officially announced.

School District Superintendent William Hite, joined by Siggers, Penn President Amy Gutmann, and City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, lauded the program for providing the city’s public schoolchildren with more relevant experiences, allowing them to engage with what they are learning in class and take advantage of the rich cultural environment and opportunities in Philadelphia.

“Thanks for everything you are doing for our students, for our teachers, and our families,” Hite said. “And, most importantly, thank you for making it free.”

Following the gallery tour, the Penn Alexander students journeyed to the Museum’s first floor for the “Mummy Makers” portion of “Unpacking the Past,” a workshop led by Emily Hirshorn, program manager for GRoW Annenberg, and Megan Becker, a GRoW Annenberg Museum educator.

As they entered, the students donned ceremonial (faux) cheetah pelts over their shoulders in order to get inside the mind of an ancient Egyptian.

“Today, after this workshop, you will all be Penn Museum-certified mummy makers, so you will be able to go home and make mummies if you want,” said Hirshorn. “You could mummify your teacher.”

“I’m already there,” joked Benjamin Hover, the students’ teacher.

Becker and Hirshorn talked with the students about the location and topography of Ancient Egypt, and ancient Egyptian beliefs about the afterlife. They also gave a detailed, tangible demonstration of the mummification process on a wealthy ancient Egyptian, a dummy named Mr. Ulysses Penn, or UPenn for short.

Hirshorn says the program gives students a window into the process of how historians and archeologists find out what was happening thousands of years ago.

“Usually history is just taught with textbooks and we focus on facts and dates, but we don’t talk about how we know these facts in the first place,” she says. “[The program] makes history come alive because it shows [students] that learning about the past is an ongoing investigation. It’s more like a science. There is still stuff to discover about history; it’s not all in the textbook.”

Hover, whose class combines literacy and social studies, says the program is a “wonderful” resource for his Penn Alexander students, enabling them to visually touch artifacts that they have been discussing in class.

“It’s one thing to see a picture, or to watch a video, or to read about something, but to actually have the object in front of you gives that memorable lesson that will stay with the kids their whole lives,” he says.

At the end of their visit, students leave with school supplies and are given a free, yearlong family membership to the Museum.

Siggers says the program teaches analytical skills that are applicable to many other subjects, and will, perhaps, inspire a few future archeologists.

“‘Unpacking the Past’ sparks something vital to success: a lifelong curiosity and love of learning,” he says. “We hope to serve these children for years for come.”

President Gutmann says the project exemplifies the promise of the Penn Compact 2020 by building access to the best teaching and education, opening creative new avenues for engagement with innovative co-curricular programs and partnerships, engaging with the community, and giving back to Philadelphia in meaningful ways.

“These seventh-graders and their peers in schools across Philadelphia are our future,” she says. “They’re future doers, they’re future thinkers, they’re future leaders. In order to prepare our future, they and we have to make sure they understand our past,” she says. “That’s what ‘Unpacking the Past’ is all about.”

All seventh-grade teachers in the School District of Philadelphia, KIPP, and Mastery charter schools can set up training for themselves and programs for their students by emailing, or by calling the Museum’s Learning Programs Department at 215-898-4033.

Unpacking the Past