Unearthed in the Archives

It’s 1:30 pm on a Friday. Alessandro Pezzati (Alex) invites guests who have come down the hallway to the iron gated Archives to enter and take a seat around a long heavy wooden table. He puts out an oversized manila folder, slightly bulging, on the table, and offers up an informal introduction to the Penn Museum Archives—the place where he has worked for more than two decades, as Senior Archivist for many of those years.

At first glance, the Archives inhabit a grand and elegant, albeit old space that seems transported from another era. One is greeted by noble painted portraits, old cabinets piled high with papers and tubes, and shelves upon shelves of grey boxes. Black ironwork circular staircases lead to an open, narrow second floor walkway, with more shelves and more boxes. The Archives is a place filled with records: archaeological and ethnographic field notes and drawings, museum correspondence, photographs, prints, and some art. Listen to Alex, though, and you soon see the Archives as a very different place: one alive with stories of the past.

Today’s story takes place in 1896, and it begins, as so many of the Museum stories do, with extraordinary people. In this case, the story begins with Phoebe Hearst, wife of Missouri miner, rancher and self-made millionaire George Hearst (d. 1891), and mother of newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst. A world traveler, Mrs. Hearst was a strong education advocate and philanthropist. She was also a good friend of William Pepper, University of Pennsylvania Provost and Museum founder. So it was that when Mrs. Hearst received coveted tickets to attend the coronation of Tsar Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra in Russia, and couldn’t attend, she thought of the Penn Museum, donated the tickets, and provided additional money for a Museum representative to purchase mementos and ethnographic materials.

But who would go? It so happened that Zelia Nuttall, a pioneering American archaeologist and anthropologist, had met Sara Yorke Stevenson, another Museum founder and first curator of the Museum’s Egyptian and Mediterranean sections, at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. Three years later, the well-traveled Ms. Nuttall was in Dresden, Germany, not so far from Moscow where the coronation would take place. A European-educated woman fluent in several languages, Ms. Nuttall was deemed to be the perfect Ambassadress for the Museum.

alex pezzati

And then Alex opens the manila folder to display the afternoon’s hand picked archival treasures: a series of large, colorful lithographs depicting the lavish Coronation of Nicholas and Alexandra, and activities around the famous event.

“These were mementos, really, of the Coronation, collected for the Museum by Zelia Nuttall,” said Alex, noting that Ms. Nuttall also sent back mugs and plates from the event. The generous stipend from Phoebe Hearst (it was about $500, Alex notes, but that bought a lot more in 1896 than in 2014) also allowed her to collect ethnographic materials from all parts of Russia at the annual Pan-Russian Industrial and Art Exhibition at Nijni-Novgorod (modern Gorki) east of Moscow. She also arranged for exchanges of collections to be made between Penn and a number of Russian museums.

It was an unlikely collection, but a not uncommon tale for the Penn Museum Archives, where the stories behind the collections—and the people—are stored for posterity.

 

Unearthed in the Archives is a new program open to the public! Join Alessandro Pezzati in the Penn Museum Archives every Friday from 1:30 to 2:30 pm, when he unearths something from the vast archival collections—and shares a good story or two.

 

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