The first academic focus for Christopher Woods was physics, a building block of science, in high school and college. And then it was Sumerian, the first written language that dates back more than 5,000 years, for his doctoral degree, which led him to the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute, first as assistant professor and finally as director. To mark its centennial, he stewarded a complete renovation of the institute’s museum building and reinstallation of the collection.
Now Woods is building upon the history of archaeology and anthropology at the 135-year-old Penn Museum in his first year as the Museum’s Williams Director.
“I was very familiar with the Penn Museum and its magnificent collection. But what most appealed to me was the global nature of the collections and research here,” says Woods, who is also the Avalon Professor of the Humanities in the School of Arts & Sciences.
“I’d spent my whole professional career studying the Middle East. This represents a tremendous opportunity, as director of this incredible museum, to expand my horizons personally and professionally, by working with Penn researchers and staff to steward a collection representing the entire world.”
Woods has been continuing a massive transformation of the historic structure, examining its extensive collection, anticipating installation of reimagined galleries, advancing its academic mission, and leading the fundraising to make it all possible.
While taking a global view, he immediately became engaged locally, working closely with the Philadelphia community on sensitive issues surrounding the handling of human remains and repatriation of objects, making a commitment to forge new Museum policies.
Working collaboratively on a long-term strategic plan, he is evaluating roles among the 165 full-time, part-time, and temporary employees. He is also establishing new positions including a chief diversity officer, a bio-archaeologist/anthropologist, a head of collections, and a director of learning and community engagement.
“It’s a really exciting time,” Woods says. “With these challenges come real opportunities.”
“With the remarkable work he and his team have already accomplished, it’s incredible to think that Chris Woods just joined the Penn Museum as its leader one year ago,” says Penn Interim President Wendell Pritchett. “The positive impact he’s had at Penn and in Philadelphia is enormously impressive and important, and his insight, experience, and expertise have proven essential. It is in large part because of Chris and his ability to always be forward-thinking that the Penn Museum has such a bright future ahead.”
From physics to ancient text
Woods grew up in Brooklyn and attended Yale University, choosing to major in physics. “I was also interested in the ancient world, particularly the ancient Mediterranean, Greece, Rome, and Egypt,” he says. So, along with his science classes, he took electives in history, literature, translation, mythology, and art history.
After graduating with his bachelor’s degree in 1989, Woods worked at a Manhattan law firm analyzing patents. He decided to use his spare time to learn ancient languages he had studied in translation at Yale, taking the train to Columbia University on his lunch hour.
What was available was a course in first-year Akkadian. “I did that for a year and fell in love with it,” he says. Instead of a graduate degree in physics, Woods pursued a doctorate at Harvard University in Assyriology, the study of the textual record from ancient Mesopotamia, in cuneiform, which survives primarily on clay tablets.
He focused on Sumerian, the language and culture that flourished between 3500 to 1700 B.C.E. in Sumer, the earliest known civilization in what is now southern Iraq. Sumerian is known as a linguistic isolate, not related to any other language, and not fully deciphered, “so it has dark corners to be explored,” he says. “The process of decipherment and studying the Sumerian language appealed not only to my interests in ancient history but also to the more technical, scientific background I had.”
Once Woods graduated with his Ph.D. in 2001, he landed one of the few jobs for a Sumerologist, at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, an interdisciplinary research center devoted to the study of the civilizations, cultures, and languages of the ancient Middle East. He started as an assistant professor in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations and in 2017 became a full professor and director of the Institute.
The Oriental Institute Museum, with more than 350,000 objects, has the largest collection of Middle Eastern artifacts in the United States. To mark its centennial year in 2019, Woods led the effort to renovate the galleries and reinstall the collection under a new strategic plan.
Woods is stewarding a similar building transformation at the Penn Museum, which has a collection of more than one million objects from around the globe spanning 10,000 years of history. When completed, about 44,000 square feet of space will be renovated, including more than 75% of the galleries.
The first Penn Museum director who is a person of color, Woods moved to Philadelphia in the summer with his wife, Jennie Myers, who also works at Penn, as director of corporate and foundation relations. The oldest of their two sons is a freshman at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and their youngest is a freshman at a high school in Philadelphia.
“I really like Philadelphia; it’s so accessible, and the walkability of it is fantastic, with a great food scene, which I genuinely appreciate,” Woods says. “I absolutely love Chicago. But I love being back here on the East Coast.”
In coming to Philadelphia, Woods swapped cities with his predecessor, Julian Siggers, who is now director of The Field Museum in Chicago. It was under Siggers that the Penn Museum’s multiyear building transformation began, first with the Middle East Galleries, which opened in 2018, and then in November of 2019, the Africa Galleries, the Mexico and Central America Gallery, as well as a reconfigured main entrance adjacent to the new Sphinx Gallery.
The 3,000-year-old, 12.5-ton red granite sphinx of Egyptian ruler Ramses II, the largest in the Western Hemisphere and the fourth-largest outside of Egypt, was relocated in June of 2019 from the lower level of the Egypt Galleries, where it had been since 1926.
“There’s always a sense of awe there for me,” Woods says about seeing the sphinx. “The Egyptian collection here is outstanding.”
In anticipation of new Ancient Egypt and Nubia Galleries, the Egyptian galleries on the Museum’s lower level were closed in 2018, allowing for evaluation and conservation of the collection. The project is a “top priority,” Woods says, adding that he intends to raise the rest of the funds needed by the end of this calendar year.
The two-year construction phase will include a full renovation of the Coxe Wing, first opened in 1926. The 4,500-year-old Kaipure Tomb Chapel will be installed in the lower level galleries, which will focus on the afterlife, with more than 3,000 objects. A reconstructed palace of the Pharaoh Merenptah, with 23-foot-high grand pillars, will be installed on the upper level. “The entire building needs to be reinforced to do that,” Woods says.
“It is a massive undertaking. I’m eager to get this next phase underway,” he says. “For the Museum to be all that it can be, we need to reinvigorate our Ancient Egypt and Nubia Galleries.”
Accessibility and relevance
Many university museums originated as inward-looking spaces for academics and students, Woods says, but that dynamic is changing to be much more outward facing. “That means telling more engaging and accessible narratives, having state-of-the-art cases and displays, and enhancing the visitor experience,” he says. “But also it has to do with how objects are presented, and how in cleaner, more targeted ways, we are able to focus on the storytelling.”
The newest galleries will feature the collection from Nubia, part of what is modern-day Sudan. One of the most notable Nubian collections in the country, it has never been on display, but it speaks to the importance of these galleries as they relate to Africa, he says.
“Ancient Egypt has typically been presented in isolation,” Woods says. “What we’re doing in our galleries is telling the story of how ancient Egypt ties into Africa and how they are related to one another.”
Decolonization is important in telling the stories of the collection as well, says Woods. “What it means is adding new and different perspectives on the material,” he says. A new exhibitions committee, with staff from every department, now weighs in on each exhibit, he says.
The collections at both the Oriental Institute and Penn are largely from the institutions’ own archeological excavations, he says, so connecting the research to the collection is critical. “That’s what makes these museums special; the research is conducted here, and the objects that are here are the results of that research,” he says.
Another element, he says, is contemporary relevance. “I think people want to know, why are these objects important to me now? How do they speak to me now?” Woods says. “I would like to explore how these objects, many of which are from the ancient world, connect to not only everyday life as relatable objects but also to issues that are of concern to these regions. In short, how does ancient history inform and influence modern identity?”
One way to do that, he says, is to bring more contemporary art into the galleries. “It’s wonderful when you can have local artists commenting on the material,” he says.
Accessibility also means finding new ways to bring people into the Museum and having the staff engage directly the community, he says, citing the “Unpacking the Past” program to connect with Philadelphia middle schoolers, paid undergraduate summer internships, and a community archaeology project in West Philadelphia.
Museums around the world are grappling with the challenge of repatriation of artifacts. In 2019, the Penn Museum had begun developing partnerships and agreements with museums in Africa to negotiate the return of certain objects, including bronzes from Benin.
While the pandemic paused those efforts, Woods says the Museum is in conversations with partner organizations in Nigeria on the issue of repatriation. “The policy is: Let’s do the right thing,” Woods says, noting that he did repatriation work while at the Oriental Institute, including with Iran.
“My perspective is that there’s an opportunity with these repatriations,” he says, to develop “rich, mutually beneficial collaborations and exchange of expertise” on research, conservation, administration, and even archaeological work.
As the first museum in 1970 to formalize the ethical acquisition of materials through the Pennsylvania Declaration presented at UNESCO, as well as its work through the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act in 1990, the Penn Museum’s commitment to ethical practices is ongoing, he says.
Within days of starting his job last April 1, two issues related to the handling of human remains made headlines, and Woods acted immediately.
He says he had anticipated the need to address the Morton Cranial Collection, more than 1,300 human crania collected in the 1830s and 1840s by Samuel G. Morton to advance his racist theories. The collection moved from the Academy of Natural Sciences to the Museum in 1966. It contained the remains of about 50 enslaved people from a plantation in Cuba.
Then in 2021 student research reported the collection also included the remains of 13 Black Philadelphians. “As soon as I learned about the research, we started making preparations to bury the Black Philadelphians in the Morton Collection and then the individuals from Cuba,” Woods says. “It’s obviously an incredibly visceral and sensitive issue. We should do the right thing.”
As part of the Museum’s response, it established the Morton Collection Community Advisory Group that includes West Philadelphia secular and religious leaders. “We’re now working on a new policy that will address the ways in which the Museum handles human remains, how we research with them, how we teach with them, how we display them, including their photographic and digital representations,” Woods says, adding that the policy will be completed by the end of the academic year.
“The way people think of human remains and how museums steward them is changing radically, and with great speed. There’s a consciousness and an awareness and a sensitivity around human remains, and there’s a necessity to emphasize and prioritize human dignity.”
Plans are in place for the burial of the Black Philadelphians this year, he says, with an interfaith ceremony and educational forums. “There will be a plaque on campus commemorating them and also describing the work of Morton and some of the issues around medical sciences in Philadelphia in the 19th century,” he says.
The other revelation was that inside the Museum were partial remains from one victim of the MOVE organization, whose home was bombed by the City of Philadelphia in 1985.
“That came as a complete surprise, but, again, the moral imperative is: Let’s do the right thing,” says Woods.
“There was no question that we wanted to reunite the remains with the Africa family,” he says. “I met with them. I apologized to them personally. I had extensive contact with them over the course of the summer facilitating the return of the remains.”
Nearly all museums adhere to an agreement which dictates ethical collection practices, he says, and that work began at the Penn Museum more than 50 years ago with the Pennsylvania Declaration.
“I think there’s a similar opportunity here to emerge from these crises as a leader in ethical stewardship practices, particularly as they pertain to human remains,” he says, “and be in the position to facilitate research into the collection and have an infrastructure to repatriate whenever the circumstances warrant it.”