’50s quiz show featured at Penn Museum

An early popular television show now featured in a Penn Museum exhibit starred an unlikely subject and celebrity.

What in the World?”—the first network program featuring archaeology—debuted on Philadelphia’s CBS affiliate WCAU-TV in 1950 and ran for 16 years. The host was Froelich Rainey, a charismatic world explorer who was director of the Museum.

An exhibit currently on display just outside the Museum’s Archives showcases the program through photos, original documents, and computers set up to watch episodes, including one featuring the actor Vincent Price and the artist Jacques Lipchitz.

The “What in the World?” exhibit was chosen as part of the University’s Year of Innovation, and will be up until March 5, says exhibit curator Alessandro Pezzati, senior archivist at the Museum.

“The Museum’s history is very deep, and it has been a pioneer in a number of areas,” he says. “We’d like to inform and entertain a bit as well.”

The quiz show followed a simple format: Three experts were asked to identify objects chosen from the Museum’s storage. Two of the panel members were Penn Museum experts, including curators, archaeologists, and anthropologists. The third member of the panel was a guest from outside Penn, such as famous anthropologist Margaret Mead. It was not a competition and there was no reward; they worked together to try to solve the mystery. 

The TV audience knew the answer from the start, learning about the objects as they dramatically emerged from billowing white clouds (made by dry ice) before the experts saw them.

At its height, the show won the prestigious Peabody Award in 1952. On display in the exhibit, the award notes the production’s “superb blending of the academic and the entertaining.” The program was nationally syndicated for six years, from 1951-1955, and broadcast on more than 80 stations.

In 1957, the show transitioned to color, and in 1963, it was included in programming on the precursor to PBS television. Although popular in Philadelphia, no corporate sponsor could be found, and the show ended in 1966. A revival was attempted in 1981 for Channel 57, with several episodes filmed in the Egyptian Galleries, but they didn’t air.

Although the show had 26 episodes a year, few broadcasts remain, only six at the Museum and two at the University of Georgia. The episodes are digitized and available online.

“One of the reasons so few tapes survive is that television companies were notoriously bad at archives. In the early days, due to the forward-thinking nature of the moving-picture enterprises, they rarely thought to save their productions,” Pezzati says. “Archeologists are recording everything. Record-keeping is very important. The Museum people document everything.”

One of those surviving episodes features the actor Price, who was also an art historian and knowledgeable collector. While he was in Philadelphia performing in a play at the Forrest Theater, he was a guest on the show with artist Lipchitz in December 1954.

The exhibit has a computer set up to show the episode with Price and Lipchitz working together to identify several ancient objects, including figures from Egypt and a mask from Africa. The third expert is Museum curator Carleton Coon, a regular on the show.

On another computer is a show combining “What in the World?” and the British Broadcasting Corp. show “Animal, Vegetable, Mineral?” 

“People think the “Animal, Vegetable, Mineral?” show came first, but, no. Ours started in 1950 and theirs started in 1952,” Pezzati says. “It was directly modeled after our show.”

The exhibit also includes typewritten scripts and correspondence, index cards listing visitors, and magazine and newspaper articles. The Museum’s Expedition magazine featured the show in articles in 2012 and in 1961.

Although there are no plans to revive the television show, the program continues to live on in other ways at the Museum. The popular “40 Winks with the Sphinx” sleepovers have a “What in the World?” game incorporated into the evening for kids and chaperones. And the Learning Programs department incorporates a “What in the World?” interactive game into community outreach events.