Staff Q&A with Anne Tiballi

This past semester, Anne Tiballi taught a freshman seminar in Penn’s Department of Anthropology in the School of Arts & Sciences. Her students spent a lot of time weaving and spinning to recreate ancient objects from the Penn Museum’s collections. Through doing, they learned.

“I think it’s an important methodology, actually doing the things that you’re studying,” Tiballi says.

Tiballi has a unique advantage in her knowledge of what’s offered at the Penn Museum: She is curricular facilitator in its Academic Engagement Department. It’s her job to inspire more interaction between the Museum and the rest of campus.

“There are very few university museums that are this big, have this much to offer, and are about archaeology and anthropology, too, instead of fine arts,” she says. “We really are a unique resource.”

Tiballi moved to Philadelphia in 2006 while studying for her doctorate in anthropology at New York’s Binghamton University. Her dissertation was based on South American artifacts at the Museum. Tiballi and her husband took a liking to the area, and stayed local even after her research was completed.

The Current sat down with Tiballi in the Museum’s Warden Garden to talk about her experiences in anthropology and archaeology, and how she’s working to encourage a stronger relationship between the Museum and the Penn community at large.

Q: What kept you in the area, and at Penn, after you finished school?
A: I had established some pretty good relationships with people in the area. Though he wasn’t my official adviser, I had been working with Clark Erickson, who is a professor in anthropology and is head curator of the Museum’s American Section, on my dissertation project, and he invited me to guest lecture for his classes, and to join an Andean interest group at the Museum. I also had a position working for the California Institute for Peruvian Studies, doing this field school every year, where I would take a group of students down to Peru and we would learn ancient weaving techniques, study objects that had come from excavations, go to museums. In 2011, we had it at Bryn Mawr and we used their collections to allow people who couldn’t make the trip to South
America to attend.

Q: What got you interested in archaeology and anthropology in the first place?
A: I think that came out of interest when I was very young in reading the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, and other books about how people lived in the past, where you read about butchering a pig or building a log cabin from scratch. That’s what got me specifically interested in craft production and technology. How did people in the past make and use the things that we now find in the archaeological record? I do have my sixth-grade yearbook that says, ‘Future profession: archaeologist.’

Q: Really? Wow. That’s awesome. Sixth grade?
A: Yes, sixth grade. Even then. I think that was when I was deep in reading Michael Crichton and similar authors, too. So [I had] an interest in science and the study of the past.

Q: Would you say that today you’re fulfilling what you’ve always wanted to do?
A: Yes. I think that this is a better version of the career that I had imagined for myself, even. Through the classes I help bring to the Museum, I get to learn a little about people and objects from all over the world, and from all parts of history, not just my little slice of a sub-discipline. It’s an archaeological smorgasbord.

Q: Let’s talk about your current role at the Penn Museum. What do you do?
A: My title is currently curricular facilitator. It’s specifically the Andrew W. Mellon curricular facilitator because I’m completely funded by the Mellon Foundation. It’s a very functionalist title. What I do is help faculty create curricula that involve the Museum’s collections and galleries, whether that’s the simple logistics of booking a room to helping them develop a list of objects that they’d like to see, or thinking of meaningful and interesting in-class or out-of-class assignments.

Q: And it’s in the Museum’s new Academic Engagement Department?
A: Right. We coalesced last May, so the department’s only a year old. It’s a subset of the Office of the Deputy Director, which also includes the curators and our new archaeological laboratories, the Center for the Analysis of Archaeological Materials. It’s mostly the campus-Museum interaction—teaching and learning for higher education at the Museum.

Q: Why was the department formed?
A: After I started in October 2013, the demand for classes went up substantially, and we started doing a lot more non-curricular programming as well. We have three collections assistants who staff the classrooms; they move the objects back and forth from storage, they supervise the classes, they do all of the
bookings. They were originally located in the Registrar’s Office, and then we decided that since most of what they were doing [pertained to classes], that it made more sense institutionally for us to be a unit. So that’s why the department is so new, and it’s newer than any of us individually.

Q: Is expanding the reach of the Museum to the faculty one of your main goals?
A: Yes, because the Penn Museum has a long tradition of teaching. We’ve always brought students along on our expeditions, and it’s always been a teaching museum. But, the idea that we could use the collections to teach things like environmental science, or comparative literature or languages, hasn’t been at the forefront.

Q: Do you think you are making progress with that?
A: Yes, I think so. Each semester sees about 15 new faculty coming to us. For the spring, we had 52 faculty members bringing at least one class each, from 23 departments. That rate is 60 percent higher than it was in Fall 2013. I think we went from 14 faculty members to 52 faculty members. And those 14 were basically the curators, or people who had been associated with the Museum for a long time.

Q: How does that feel? Do you feel like ‘mission accomplished’ or do you feel like ‘Oh, I still have a lot more to do’?
A: Totally both. When the course catalog drops halfway through the semester, I go through and I just read it. I make note of any class, title, or description where I can see some sort of connection with something the Museum has to offer. And then I proceed to email those faculty; maybe I can pull together a short list of objects, links to our database that they can look at. Basically, it’s an invitation. I say, ‘Would you like to talk about this more?’ Some of the connections are very obvious; we had a class my first semester on Japanese samurai, and we have over 250 samurai-related objects in the collection. We have full sets of armor and swords and scrolls. When I contacted the professor, his response was basically, ‘Wow, I would love to do that, I just had no idea I could do it.’ Opening the door is the best and easiest way to start.

Q: What are your goals for the future with this position?
A: Well, obviously, I’d really like to see all of those numbers go up every semester. You know, figuring out ways to reach out to faculty and departments that I have not yet been able to connect with. The new teaching laboratories, which opened last October, provide an amazing bridge for connecting with the hard sciences and the life sciences. We have long-standing relationships in the humanities and social sciences, but there are still opportunities for growth there, too. We want to make the Museum a truly interdisciplinary educational center where all the disciplines come together. Our ultimate goal is for every Penn student to have a meaningful experience at the Penn Museum.

Anne Tiballi