The Sphinx at the Penn Museum in downtown Philadelphia.

The Penn Museum: World History in the Birthplace of America

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In a city known for its importance to American history, the Penn Museum almost seems a bit out of place in Philadelphia. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy my time at the museum. I did. But in a city so focused on American history, a museum filled with amazing artifacts from around the world seems a bit strange.

Delve a bit more into the museum’s history, however, and it starts to make more sense why Philly is home to one of the nation’s best archeology and anthropology museums.

Founded in 1887 to showcase some of the discoveries from the University of Pennsylvania’s archeology dig in Nippur, Iraq, the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology has grown over the last 126 years, sending out more than 300 expeditions to cultural sites around the world.

Since its inception, the museum’s collection has expanded to include over 1 million artifacts from Asia, Africa, Europe, and North America.

The Kamin entrance to the Penn Museum in Philadelphia.

The Kamin entrance to the Penn Museum in Philadelphia.

The Penn Museum is located on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania, which was founded in 1740 by Benjamin Franklin. Maybe I’ve seen Indian Jones too many times, but walking through the historic campus, the University’s gothic architecture towering above, it seems like the perfect location for an archeology museum.

I started my visit to the Penn Museum in the African exhibit. The museum is home to one of the largest collections of African artifacts in the country, but their display is currently in transition. Interestingly though, they have set up a section with several potential themes for the new African exhibit.

Along with displaying a few relevant objects and a brief written summary of each theme, they offer an area for visitors to write their suggestions for what the updated exhibit should look like.

I also enjoyed my time exploring the museum’s Egyptian collection.

The mummy of a child on display at the Penn Museum in downtown Philly.

The mummy of a child on display at the Penn Museum in downtown Philly.

Clearly the largest area of artifacts, the collection included everything from small pots to mummies. However, the most dramatic scene in the section (or the museum for that matter) is the 12-ton Sphinx of Ramses II, the 3rd largest Sphinx in the world. Set in the middle of a dimly lit room and flanked by large Egyptian columns, the setting wouldn’t be out of place in an action movie.

The museum also had an interesting exhibit featuring their collection of artifacts from Ur, one of the many ancient cities in present day Iraq. Not only did they have several beautiful pieces of art, like a golden, calf-shaped lyre, but they also presented a lot of information on an area that has been under-explored over the last few decades.

The museum also features fantastic collections of Asian Buddhist art, Roman and Greek statues, and Near East mosaics. They also have a Native American exhibit that opened in early 2014.

A golden bull and helmet discovered at the ancient city of Ur in present day Iraq at the Penn Museum.

A golden bull and helmet discovered at the ancient city of Ur in present day Iraq.

Overall, I really enjoyed my visit to the Penn Museum in Philadelphia. While it may not have a collection that can compete with the Smithsonian or the British Museum, the artifacts they have on display are well documented and quite exquisite. In my opinion, it’s worth visiting even if you only have time to see the displays on Egypt and Iraq.

Visiting the Penn Museum

The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology (Penn Museum) is located on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania about a mile from the 30th Street Train Station in downtown Philadelphia.

If you have an iPhone, download the free “Highlights of the Galleries” app before you leave home for an hour long audio tour through the museum.

My visit to the Penn Museum was hosted by Visit Philly. The opinions in this post are my own and were not subject to review prior to publication. 

Looking for more to do in the area? Check out the views from Cira Green, visit Eastern State Penitentiary, or check out the strange Mütter Museum.

The Penn Museum

Hours: Tuesday-Sunday: 10a-5p

Cost: Adults: $15, Children: $10

Website: Penn.Museum

Address: 3260 South Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104


See map for other area attractions.

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AUTHOR - Jim Cheney

Jim Cheney is the creator of Based in the state capital of Harrisburg, Jim frequently travels around Pennsylvania and has visited, written about, and photographed all 67 counties in the state. He has also traveled to more than 30 different countries around the world.


  • Rachel Mojecki

    While I never thought about it being a strange collection for the city, I’m glad to see you enjoyed your visit. I absolutely love this museum, and think it’s quite a gem.

  • Pam Kosty

    Thanks for coming by, Jim, and I love your headline! I work at the Penn Museum, and just wanted to tell you that the Sphinx on your photograph–largest in the Western Hemisphere–is celebrating 100 years in Philadelphia, and we’re doing it with a Hijinks with the Sphinx bit of flair on Saturday, October 19:

    • Jim Cheney

      Thanks for sharing that, Pam. Sounds like a great event. Happy birthday, Giant Sphinx!

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