In the shadow of Sphinx

Julian Siggers, director of University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, stands in the back row (from left) with Penn President Amy Gutmann and School Superintendent William Hite Jr. at Tuesday’s announcement of new school partnership.

University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann has unveiled a new school partnership that allows all Philadelphia middle school students to explore world history and culture, using ancient artifacts as study tools.

She announced the partnership between the School District of Philadelphia, the Knowledge Is Power Program, Penn Alexander School and Mastery Charter Schools this week at Penn’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. A 15-ton Sphinx, the largest outside the Middle East region, served as a backdrop.

School Superintendent William Hite Jr. welcomed the support of officials involved in planning the program funded by a $1 million grant underwritten by the Annenberg Foundation. The benefactors are well known on campus with academic buildings bearing the Annenberg family name.

Hite said the program will engage students and help make learning relevant. And above all, the school chief said the program, “Unpacking the Past,” includes free year-long membership for students, school staff, and their families.

“Children will sometimes recall facts and sometimes not,” Hite said at a kickoff event. “But they will always recall experiences.”

He said it would be a shame if local students who live in the city never set foot inside any of its museums.

“This experience allows our children to really engage with what they’re learning in the classroom,” Hite said.

In all, more than $2 million is being invested into the program with a GRoW Annenberg grant underwritten by the Annenberg Foundation and the support of matching funds from PECO and others.

The program will help students develop analytical skills that can be applied in many other subjects, officials said.

It also takes on added significance in the wake of cuts in education funding that have resulted in elimination or reductions in arts and cultural programs in many of Philadelphia’s public schools.

The interactive program, open to all seventh-graders in Philadelphia public schools, is linked to the common core curriculum standards in core subjects such as language arts, math and science. It also arranges professional development for teachers, field trips, student projects and school visits.

Julian Siggers, director of the museum, said the museum is a valuable community resource that could “make a real difference in education experience of Philadelphia school students in the seventh grade.”

Gutmann said the new program would advance her priority of increasing public access to university resources.

“That is what a great museum is all about. That is what the ‘Unpack the Past’ is all about,” Gutmann said.

Philadelphia City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, co-chair of the Committee on Education, said, “This museum is a wonderful gift. You can’t learn it all in a lifetime.”

But she said a program that allows local children to explore local museums “will help youngsters be more motivated to find out more about the world and find about more about themselves.” It also emphasizes the value of work, study and coming to understand the significance of history.

Megan Becker, a museum educator, spoke to more than three dozen students about the mummification process, using a Halloween pumpkin as a metaphor for a decomposing body.

She explained the importance of mummifying the dead by asking pupils to think about how a decaying pumpkin might look, feel and smell.

“That’s what happens to a human if we don’t preserve the body,” Becker said.

Emily Hirshorn, who manages education programs for GRoW Annenberg, told students at the outset they would be certified mummy-makers on completing the program.

“You can mummify your teacher,” she joked and then nodded toward their teacher, Benjamin Hover.

The pumpkin metaphor segued into a discussion about ancient Egyptian belief about life after death. A large screen projection made mention of the “Egyptian Book of the Dead” and defined Egypt’s boundaries on the northern coast of Africa when it was a world power.

Contact staff writer Wilford Shamlin III at (215) 893-5742 or

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