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from the trenches
Fire in the Lab Volume 62 Number 2, March/April 2009
by Roger Atwood

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(Wikipedia Commons)

A plan by the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology to cut costs by laying off 18 researchers and closing a major scientific laboratory has drawn angry protests from academics in the United States and abroad. Facing the backlash, museum director and archaeologist Richard Hodges said he will likely keep an as-yet-undetermined number of the 18 researchers on staff, but stood by plans to shutter the Museum Applied Science Center for Archaeology (MASCA) as part of a plan to deal with slumping fundraising. Supporters of MASCA call it one of the museum's core strengths and cite its pioneering work on the development of agriculture in the ancient Near East and the Maya world.

"What I'm trying to do is make the museum more financially sustainable." Hodges told Archaeology. But he sounded an optimistic note on renewed fundraising efforts since announcing the layoffs in December. "We are finding quite a few new opportunities for funding, and I am pretty confident that in the end the number won't be anything like that," he said, referring to the 18 researchers originally slated to be let go.

Hodges announced the changes while circulating a "five-year strategy" to overhaul the venerable Philadelphia institution. The plan called for refurbishing exhibits, bolstering educational programs, and making the museum more tourist-friendly by adding an expensive restaurant and a visitor services department. The plan also called for "refram[ing] exhibitions in line with contemporary intellectual frameworks."

"Some of our exhibits looked great in the '80s but they're a little tired now," said Hodges, adding that he hopes to raise annual visitorship from 160,000 to 300,000 in five years. He said MASCA "was groundbreaking in the 1960s and '70s," but that its mission of pure archaeological research did not fit with the museum's new direction.

The cutbacks drew almost immediate criticism, much of it focused on the plan to close MASCA and dismiss Patrick McGovern, head of its Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory and a nationally known researcher on the origins of wine and chocolate. In a letter to Hodges, Zahi Hawass, the head of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, said McGovern and other MASCA researchers "dedicated their whole lives to the discovery and elucidation of humans on this planet" and urged Hodges "to reconsider this harmful decision."

Founded in 1961 as a center for radiocarbon dating, MASCA specializes in molecular and biological analysis of archaeological remains, and has a long list of research breakthroughs to its name. Among them are McGovern's work that showed chocolate was cultivated in Mesoamerica by 1100 B.C., five centuries earlier than previously thought. MASCA's demise would also mean laying off two other prominent researchers: Naomi Miller, a specialist in Near Eastern agriculture, and Kathleen Ryan, who studies ancient settlement patterns in east Africa.

Other research-driven museums face similar distress. The Field Museum in Chicago announced in January that its endowment had fallen $95 million, about 30 percent. "Corporate and philanthropic giving are down. What we see anecdotally is that many museums are in similar situations as the Penn and the Field," said Dewey Blanton, a spokesman for the American Association of Museums.

McGovern, who also teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in biomolecular archaeology at Penn, said past efforts to boost visitor levels had fallen short and doubted this one would fare any better. "What has worked for the museum is cutting-edge research," said McGovern. "This is what excites and draws people into the museum."

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