Discovery in Action: A Penn Student’s Experience

March 14, 2018

Discovery is a recurring theme here at the Penn Museum. From scholarly researchers to casual visitors, few who come through our doors are able to escape without discovering something about the vast history of humanity. And every now and then, the Museum even serves as a vehicle for personal discovery—for finding out something about one’s own self.

Sheridan Small, a senior undergraduate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. Photo by Hue Truong.

Enter Sheridan Small. Sheridan is currently in her senior year as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Anthropology. She and I first met in the summer of 2015, after the end of her freshman year; she was one of about a dozen student participants on the Smith Creek Archaeological Project, a Penn Museum project led by Dr. Megan Kassabaum that focuses on a pre-Columbian mound site in Wilkinson County, Mississippi. Sheridan spent the summer learning proper fieldwork techniques, and getting to work digging, cleaning, and documenting the team’s finds—which included potsherds, animal bones, terrestrial features, and other remnants of the Coles Creek culture of Native Americans who formed and utilized this space. Sheridan had connected with the project through the Penn Undergraduate Research Mentoring Program, which provides students completing their first or second undergraduate year the opportunity to spend a summer conducting research with a Penn faculty member.

Sheridan Small, shown here in June 2015, inspects a recently excavated potsherd during fieldwork on the Smith Creek Archaeological Project in Wilkinson County, Mississippi. Photo by Tom Stanley.

“I didn’t know what anthropology was until I got to Penn,” Sheridan says, during a conversation with me in the Museum Café. “I took ‘Introduction to Culture’ with [Professor of Anthropology] Brian Spooner, my first semester freshman year… and I’m like, oh my god, this is insane, how have I never known about this discipline?

Initially, Sheridan was most interested in learning more about biology and English, but her discovery of anthropology quickly transformed the course of her undergraduate career. And thanks in large part to another anthropology class, “Policy, Museums, and Cultural Heritage” (which she describes as “the best class she’s ever taken”) with former Penn Museum Director Dr. Richard Leventhal, she also began to realize the role of anthropology in the world of museums—a world in which she felt very much at home.“I’ve always liked museums. I was that kid who wanted to go to museums all the time and just be there. I’d been there a hundred times, but I just wanted to just be there again. But this class questions museums, and questions their role and their purpose, and the way they display objects, and how they got objects, and what they tell people about how they got those objects. And I was like, oh my god. Like, I never thought of any of this. Why didn’t I think of any of this? This is really important. This is people’s history.

Sheridan leads a tour of the Museum’s Rome Gallery, on behalf of the student-based Clio Society. Photo by Francesca Saldan.

As a freshman, Sheridan got involved with the Museum’s Clio Society, working with other Penn undergrads to promote student awareness of the Museum and its collections. She also participated in the Museum’s Academic Year Internship program, an initiative that allows Penn sophomores and juniors the opportunity to work closely with Museum staff for two semesters—exposing students to museum practice, and providing them with the tools to conduct independent, senior-level research in the collections. In so doing, Sheridan has expanded her interests, as well as her professional network—finding opportunities to work with several faculty and staff members at the Museum, on projects whose focuses ranged from Moché pottery to Mesopotamian grave contents.

Last year, two of those faculty members, Dr. Kassabaum and Dr. Ann Brownlee, successfully nominated Sheridan for the Penn Museum Fellows program. This program, now in its third year, provides support to students whose large-scale senior project (required of all Penn undergraduates) is heavily reliant on the Museum and its collections, research, or history.

“I needed a senior thesis topic, and I couldn’t come up with one. Mostly because I haven’t really worked in one field throughout my undergraduate career; I’ve been trying a lot of different stuff,” she says. Dr. Brownlee mentioned a man named Robert Lamborn, a 19th-century collector whom Brownlee has been researching on and off for the last few years, and who would be a perfect focus for Sheridan’s thesis. Sheridan agreed, and using Dr. Brownlee’s existing research, got to work on her own.

Dr. Brownlee, who serves as Associate Curator of the Penn Museum’s Mediterranean Section, explains her thinking in recommending this project to Sheridan. “I suggested the topic to Sheridan because she has a broad background in anthropology and has had a lot of museum experience, so I knew she could deal with his very eclectic collection and also understand how it fit into (or didn’t) late 19th-century collecting both by institutions and individuals,” she says. “I’d done some work on Lamborn myself so I knew there was archival material at the institutions he was associated with, so there was a lot out there that I hadn’t studied. And, of course, I concentrated only on Lamborn’s Mediterranean collections.”

Portrait of Robert Henry Lamborn. Photo courtesy of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University.

Robert Henry Lamborn was born in 1835 and died in 1895. Lamborn’s name is associated with hundreds of objects in the Penn Museum collections, objects that differed greatly from the fine art that populated many private collections of the mid-1800s. While others were collecting oil paintings or marble sculptures, Lamborn was gathering post-Classical gems, bucchero pottery, African household objects, Native American hunting gear, and much more. Even more different was his method of storage; while many collectors of the time would have displayed their treasures in their homes, Lamborn (a perpetual bachelor) relied on rooms in various hotels of the time—the Aldine in Philadelphia, the Savoy in New York—for his primary residence. As such, Lamborn’s collections were primarily kept and displayed at three Philadelphia museums.

“Lamborn is buying things explicitly to add to his collection at different museums,” Sheridan says. “So, he donates to the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA), which was called the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art. He donated to the Academy of Natural Sciences (ANS), and he donates here [to the Penn Museum], which is pretty significant because it’s so early. The Penn Museum wasn’t built by the time he died, so he is only seeing his collection in the Furness Library, which is the Fisher Fine Arts building now,” (The first section of the current Penn Museum building wasn’t built until 1899). Decades after his 1895 death, both the PMA and the ANS refined their missions, which led to much of the eclectic Lamborn material being consolidated under the purview of the Penn Museum.

While the Penn Museum’s Online Collections Database lists nearly 900 objects in our collection connected to Lamborn, most have not yet been photographed for posterity. To overcome this obstacle, Sheridan worked closely with the Academic Engagement department at the Museum to coordinate private access to objects from the Lamborn collection, in the Collections Study Room at the Museum.

“The collection here, I’ve used in a number of ways,” Sheridan says. “First, I’ve been trying to see what he collected, because we have a lot of ideas of him as a collector that was atypical…that he’s not normal, he’s not like other collectors. So, I had to see, was that true? That’s why we were looking at the bucchero (see above photo)—to see, does it look like a typology or are they all random? What did they look like?”

“Another part of it is, what does he have? Because it’s been moved around so much, we were trying to pin down what of his collection is still remaining as a collection. And then some of it is just looking at objects—sometimes they have labels on them, or stickers with different numbers on them, and I’m trying to figure out what those mean. They sometimes tell us about where he got them from, like a dealer, or they tell us about his organization policy…. I don’t think he was that organized though, because he sent letters to people saying, will you send me a list of the objects that you have that are mine?, because he doesn’t know.”

In the Collections Study Room at the Penn Museum, Sheridan examines Etruscan pottery collected by Robert Lamborn during the 19th century. Photo by Ann Brownlee.
Sheridan examines materials related to Robert Lamborn in the Museum Archives at the Penn Museum. Photo by Tom Stanley.

To track down these personal letters and other written documents related to Lamborn and his collection, Sheridan explored the holdings of the Penn Museum Archives. She found numerous letters between Lamborn and such early Penn Museum figures as Charles Abbott and Stewart Culin (such as a postcard on which Lamborn writes instructions to Culin for an update to the arrangement of Lamborn’s collection), as well as a photograph of Lamborn for an article in the Philadelphia Public Ledger, describing his collection at Memorial Hall (which was then home to the Philadelphia Museum and School of Industrial Art).

Sheridan studies a photograph of Robert Lamborn and Dalton Dorr, originally published in the Philadelphia Public Ledger in 1889 and currently housed in the Museum Archives at the Penn Museum. Photo by Tom Stanley.

She also worked with archives at various institutions around the country, from the PMA and ANS to the New York Public Library and even the archives of Colorado College, in order to paint a fuller picture of who Lamborn was.

“The Colorado College Archives has two letters from him, to a person named Helen Hunt Jackson,” Sheridan says. “I was looking for Helen Hunt Jackson because there are some labels on his baskets from California that say, ‘From Helen Hunt Jackson.’

“The reason why I was able to find it is Helen Hunt Jackson is well-known. She was an author in the 1800s who wrote under, I think, just HH Jackson…. I was researching her, and I found these two letters to her in this archive. I think that they were having an affair, because he references kissing her at one point.” Jackson would go on to marry a different man, while Lamborn remained a hotel-dwelling bachelor until his death from a heart condition in 1895.

Sheridan has recently completed her thesis on Lamborn, and presented her research last month at Anthrofest, the Department of Anthropology’s annual undergraduate research conference. In addition to fulfilling one of the loftiest requirements for the completion of her undergraduate degree, Sheridan’s exploration of Robert Lamborn has served as a vehicle for strengthening her independent research and study skills. These skills will prove to be indispensable as she prepares to move on to graduate school in pursuit of a master’s degree in museum studies.

Sheridan poses with her poster based on the Lamborn research project inside the University of Pennsylvania’s Houston Hall. With her are Dr. Ann Brownlee (center), Associate Curator in the Museum’s Mediterranean Section, and Dr. Megan Kassabaum, Weingarten Assistant Curator in the American Section. Photo by Sarah Linn.

Dr. Brownlee says Sheridan’s detailed study of Lamborn’s material in the Museum has contributed enormously to her own understanding of this intriguing collector. “I’d only looked at the Lamborn material in our section, although that is only one part of his incredibly eclectic collection, so finding out about his Native American, Oceanian, Asian, etc., material has been very interesting. She has also done a terrific job of looking at Lamborn in the context of his time, when both anthropology and museology were really becoming disciplines. He was a businessman, not an academic, although he had a Ph.D. from the University of Giessen in Germany, and he clearly thought himself the intellectual equal of the scholars and curators he met and corresponded with. Sheridan has illuminated this side of him and has really given him the recognition he deserves as a collector but also as a thinker and innovator in the museum world. ”

Dr. Kassabaum has been equally impressed with Sheridan’s work during her four years at Penn. “When Sheridan joined my project as a freshman, it seemed clear that she would go on to do interesting anthropological research during her time at Penn—but neither she nor I knew what that research would be about,” Kassabaum says. “She took advantage of every opportunity during her time here to discover what it was that interested her so much about anthropology, from internships, to coursework, to independent research. Her thesis research on Lamborn creatively combines cultural anthropology, archaeology, history, and museum work and has given me a glimpse into the role that early collectors and institutions like the Penn Museum played in the early history of anthropology.”

A fascinating fragment of the Penn Museum’s rich, 130-year history has come into clearer focus thanks to Sheridan and the discoveries she’s made here. Something tells me that this will not be her last contribution to our collective understanding of the world of museums, and the unique people behind them.