Adventure: 40 Winks with the Sphinx at the Penn Museum

Those who know me know that I’m a major history lover. Last August, I stumbled upon the Penn Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology in Philly. I was there for work and checked it out after my meetings wrapped up. It. Was. Awesome. I couldn’t wait to come back. A few weeks later, after signing up for the email list and following on Facebook, I saw the post about their children’s program “40 Winks with the Sphinx.” For those who don’t know, the Penn Museum contains the 3rd largest Sphinx in the world, built c. 1938 BCE. Think about that a second…I’ll wait. Crazy, right? So, knowing my now 7-year old, Ella, likes adventures and art, I signed her up as a present for her 7th birthday, which was earlier this month. She was psyched (So was I ). Sleeping over in a museum, in the Egypt Gallery, next to an almost 4,000-year old Sphinx? My inner history geek was squealing.

Fast forward to last night. After the sometimes-hair-raising drive in to Philly, we unpacked our sleeping bags and flashlights, and as we still had 2.5 hours to kill, we decided to walk around the University of Pennsylvania campus. It’s pretty neat – lots of old buildings.

We made our way back to the museum and received our briefing on what to expect, and our scavenger hunt list. The next stop found us winding our way through the Egypt Gallery looking at mummies, statuary, and various artifacts spanning the 3,000 or so years of this awesome civilization. We moved on to the China and Japan Gallery and saw some of the most beautiful Buddha statuary that I’ve seen anywhere.

We then made our way to a short term exhibit, “Cultures in the Crossfire: Iraq and Syria.” This exhibit was utterly heartbreaking, showing the immense destruction by Isis in Syria and Iraq at sites like Nimrud, Ur, Aleppo, and Palmyra. There were video stations showing before and after shots of the sites, interviews with locals whose lives have forever been changed, and various recovered artifacts, like an 18th-century deerskin Torah, clay cuneiform tablets telling the epic of Gilgamesh, jewelry, and even 19th-century children’s dolls. The historian in me cringed at the history that was destroyed and lost forever. My heart broke seeing the men, women, and children who lost everything and fear for their lives on a daily basis.

Afterwards, we walked into the Israel & Canaanite Gallery, where we learned about the way ancient Israelites dwelled and how they worshipped. It was pretty cool to put together knowledge I had learned from reading the Bible, and seeing that culture represented. There were also some pretty neat artifacts from the ancient seafarers – the Phoenicians.

We moved onto Ancient Rome, which of course, is my forte and my passion. I was so excited to tell Ella about the different artifacts, mosaics, coinage, and history from Ancient Rome. The Penn Museum is fortunate to have a great example of damnatio memoriae, or condemnation of memory. Specifically, they’ve got a damnatio memoriae stela of the Emperor Domitian (81-96 CE). Very little of Domitian’s claims to fame remain on the stela, with only four words being partially legible. We saw some coinage from Augustus, which was particularly exciting for me because I’ve been working on a paper for my second master’s degree on Augustus and how he built his public image and ideology through coinage, poetry, statuary, etc. You bet I snapped up some pictures to incorporate into my paper. 😉 We learned about the Etruscans, which was the society, along with the Latins, that predated the Romans in Italy before they in the were ultimately absorbed by the Romans following their defeat in the Etruscan-Roman wars in 264 BCE. 🏺⚱️📿

We hit up the Greece Gallery, but Ella wasn’t really feeling it, so we quickly moved on to the Africa Gallery. Here we had the opportunity to make a version of a Mbira, or African finger piano. These instruments were used by various tribes across the continent of Africa to speak and communicate with ancestors. Ella said the Africa Gallery was her favorite, because she enjoyed how the different tribes communicated with their ancestors through dance and music. She also enjoyed the different masks and was excited to be able to identify different animals represented on the masks.

Later on we played a version of “What in the World,” and Ella was picked as one of the contestants, where she correctly identified a fan from Central America used to help build cooking fires.

We did a scavenger hunt by flashlight afterwards. Walking through the museum in the dark was admittedly creepy – particularly walking through Ancient Egypt with the mummies! No, I wasn’t scared – YOU were scared. 😱⚰️

Finally we made our way back to our sleeping bags (on a very hard floor…) around midnight, in full view of the Sphinx. Needless to say, we crashed hard. Once we woke up, we had a quick breakfast, hit up the gift shop, and headed out.

It was so much fun, and I’m excited to bring my little one, Will, when he turns 7 (minimum age for the sleepover is 6, maximum is 12, chaperone required; however, I think 6 is a bit young to really have the attention span needed for this particular museum). As a bonus, Ella gets free admission through the end of the summer! We’ll definitely be back for another visit. Interested? You can find out more on the program here, but they sell out quickly, and are only held in the winter/spring months due to a lack of a/c in all of the galleries. The museum is undergoing a massive reno, so that may change in the future. We highly recommend!