See you later, sphinx

The colossal stone creature will be going under wraps for conservation at the Penn Museum.

Penn Museum sphinx
Visitors to the Penn Museum explore the Egypt Gallery and its centerpiece, the Sphinx of Rameses II, the sixth-largest granite sphinx in the world, and the largest in the Western Hemisphere. Photo by Lauren Hansen-Flaschen. 

For the first time in 105 years, the Penn Museum’s sphinx will be taken out of public view for an extended period of time. Starting on July 9, the colossal stone creature will be under wraps for an estimated four to six years while artifacts in the Egypt galleries undergo conservation and the spaces undergo a major renovation.

“For the Museum, the sphinx is a major symbol of the collections,” says Josef Wegner, associate curator of the Egyptian galleries. “It’s so popular, so iconic.” 

The Museum is calling the interval a “staycation,” because the 13-ton sphinx will remain in the gallery, covered and protected during construction, as will some of the other enormous architectural pieces. Most of the artifacts will be taken offsite for the conservation work.  

“The sphinx is made of red granite, which is relatively impervious to most forms of museum-based deterioration.” says Lynn Grant, head conservator. “So it will require little active conservation. Our gallery maintenance crew cleans him using HEPA vacuums several times a year. We will probably take advantage of his resting period to see if there is any deeper cleaning needed.” 

Remaining open during this period will be The Artifact Lab: Conservation in Action, where conservators study, clean, and prepare ancient artifacts, including those from Egypt. Also open will be the third-floor Egyptian galleries, including the exhibit “Egyptian Mummies: Secrets and Science.” In winter 2019, the Museum will unveil a new special exhibition with a focus on ancient Egypt.

The renovation of the Egypt galleries is part of the Museum’s three-year, $102 million Building Transformation Project, the largest in its history. The new signature Middle East Galleries opened in April. The Mexico & Central America and Africa galleries are expected to open in September 2019. 

“There will be plenty of other highlights to see,” says Wegner.  

The Museum is offering special sphinx-related programs in these final weeks. Admission is free on June 29, as part of the Wawa Welcome America celebration. Museum instructors will be on hand from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. to answer questions, and visitors can create and share a message about the sphinx to be posted in the gallery. On July 7 and 8 a Museum photographer will be available from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. to take portraits of visitors to be emailed as keepsakes.

Penn Museum sphinx
The sphinx relocated to the Lower Egyptian Gallery, Coxe Wing, for its opening in 1926.

More than 3,000 years old, the sphinx of Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses II is the largest in the Western Hemisphere, and the fourth-largest sphinx outside Egypt. When the sphinx arrived in 1913, it was the second-largest ancient Egyptian monument to come to the United States, after New York’s Central Park obelisk. 

The sphinx had traveled more than 6,000 miles, from the ruins of Memphis, the ancient capital of Egypt. Arriving on Oct. 18, it was wheeled through the streets of Philadelphia in an enormous cart, causing quite a distraction from the Penn-Brown football game. 

First placed outside in the main entrance courtyard, it was moved inside three years later due to conservation concerns and then in 1926 to a new Egyptian wing. “He is sitting exactly where he was nearly 100 years ago,” says Wegner, who co-authored a book with his wife, curator Jennifer Wegner, about the sphinx to mark the 100th anniversary of its arrival. 

Although not feasible to move it out of the galleries, the sphinx may be moved within the exhibit space, say Grant and Wegner said. “His position in the gallery will probably change but will be subject to rigorous engineering review to ensure that he is properly positioned with regard to the support columns below the gallery floor,” Grant says. 

Penn Museum sphinx
The sphinx in the Museum courtyard in about 1915. Photo by Charles Sheeler.

Plans are to re-position the sphinx to the center of the gallery entrance, says Wegner, an undertaking that would probably involve rollers.

“The sphinx will become a centerpiece of the Egypt archaeology work of the Museum, an introduction to that whole experience,” he says. 

The original support structure, probably made from wooden railway ties will be replaced with a steel armature,” Grant says. “The curators are currently deciding whether to maintain him at his current height or to make the base slightly lower,” she said.  

The Egyptian galleries’ renovation and reinstallation “will be a monumental task in every sense of the word,” Grant says. The building plans include new heating and air conditioning, improved exhibit infrastructure, new visitor amenities, and other changes to the galleries. 

The largest of the artifacts, like the sphinx and some of the architectural elements from the Merenptah Palace of the son of Ramses II, will stay, but the others will be moved to a specially equipped offsite storage facility where conservators will document, research, and conserve those artifacts. Many other items in the Museum’s extensive Egypt collection will come out of storage for consideration to be included in the new galleries.

“When you work through a collection as important and extensive as ours, you discover a lot of things,” says Wegner. “It is an exciting time. We are essentially excavating in our own museum.” 

The public is encouraged to share sphinx stories and images on social media with the tags #sphinxtales @pennmuseum, which will be posted to the Museum’s website at  www.penn.museum/sphinx.