Since its founding in 1887, the Penn Museum has collected nearly one million objects, many obtained directly through its own field excavations or anthropological research. The Museum's vast and varied collections are in active service to the University of Pennsylvania community and researchers from all over the world.
The African collection at the Penn Museum is one of the largest collections in the country. The collection includes approximately 15,000 ethnographic and 5,000 archaeological objects and most of the collection was obtained between 1891 and 1937. A large part of the collection was purchased in 1912 from art dealers in London and Hamburg; many of these objects were collected in the Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) by the famous German ethnographer Leo Frobenius.
The collections of the American Section are the largest of the Penn Museum and number approximately 300,000 archaeological and ethnographic specimens. The collections span the continents of North and South America from Alaska to Argentina, and document human habitation and history from the ancient past to the present day. More than half of the American collection is archaeological in nature, and much of the collection was acquired on more than 100 archaeological and ethnographic collecting expeditions initiated by Museum and University faculty and staff as early as 1895.
The Asian section covers all of Asia and has a little over 25,000 objects. Most of our objects are kept in storage and used for research and classroom purposes; only about 1% are on display at any time. Unlike many other sections of the museum, the Asian collection has little archaeological material as our focus is largely on ethnographic collections.
The Babylonian Section houses a collection of almost 30,000 clay tablets inscribed in Sumerian and Akkadian cuneiform, making it one of the ten largest collections in the world. The collection contains the largest number of Sumerian school tablets and literary compositions of any of the world's museums, as well as important administrative archives ranging from 2900 to 500 BCE.
The Penn Museum houses one of the largest collections of Egyptian and Nubian material in the United States, numbering in excess of 42,000 items. Assembled through nearly a century of archaeological research, this collection is unusual in that the vast majority of the objects were obtained through archaeological investigations and entered the museum through a division of finds with Egypt’s Antiquities Service.
European Archaeology Section
The Penn Museum began acquiring prehistoric European archaeological collections in 1892. These collections were housed in the General Ethnology/American and Prehistoric Archaeology Curatorial Section until 1913 when the European Curatorial Section was formally created as a separate entity.
Historical Archaeology Section
The Historical Archaeology Section is the oldest such section in the United States, dating back to the early 1970s. Since the subject matter of Historical Archaeology involves the study of the Modern World (1400 CE to the present), such collections in North America date either to the Colonial Period or to the 19th-20th centuries.
Near East Section
The Penn Museum has a long history of field work in the Middle East, beginning with the late 19th century excavations at Nippur, early Mesopotamia’s pre-eminent religious center, in what is today Iraq. Since that time the Museum has worked in nearly every country in the Middle East, with research including not only archaeological surveys and excavations, but also ethnographic studies.
The Oceanian collections include over 22,000 objects from all the major island groups of the Pacific (Polynesia, Melanesia, and Micronesia), insular Southeast Asia, and Australia. Except for a very limited number of archaeological specimens, the collections are ethnographic, representing the material culture of the Pacific peoples from the mid-19th century to the present.
Physical Anthropology Section
The Physical Anthropology Section curates extensive skeletal human and primate collections from all around the world. In total, approximately 10,000 individuals in various states of preservation with both historic and archaeological materials.