At this year’s Volunteer Appreciation Luncheon I was lucky enough to present the award for Volunteer of the Year to Dr. Elin Danien. It’s always hard to choose just one volunteer to specially highlight, but Elin has always been a standout. In her 40 years of working and volunteering at the Penn Museum she has unswervingly supported our mission to transform the way our visitors think about the human experience. And though she came to Philadelphia to become America’s next great actress, she’s created an amazing legacy as a scholar, educator, and philanthropist.
By Kevin Schott, Guide Program Manager
The Penn Museum is lucky to have a corps of dedicated volunteers that run guided tours, do mummy dusting, and a lot more. Dr. Elin Danien’s work at the Museum, as a volunteer and as a staff member, covers these jobs and quite a few more, including researcher and author. In 1998, Dr. Danien completed her Ph.D. dissertation, focused on the Penn Museum’s collection of Chama pottery which formed the core of a 2009 exhibition, Painted Metaphors: Pottery and Politics of the Ancient Maya. Dr. Danien’s publications include Maya Folktales from the Alta Verapaz and Guide to the Mesoamerican Gallery, which followed her renovation of that gallery in 2002. Events coordinator for the Penn Museum from 1981 to 1989, Dr. Danien founded the Museum’s annual Maya Weekend (1983-2013), an in-depth weekend of exploration featuring Maya scholars, epigraphers, and educators. A Penn graduate who began her college education at the age of 46, Dr. Danien is founder of Bread Upon the Waters, a Penn scholarship assisting non-traditional undergraduates—women age 30 and older—to attain an undergraduate degree through part-time study.
Learn more about our Volunteer of the Year in the short interview below with Dr. Elin Danien!
1. What do you do as a volunteer?
Docent, lecturer, researcher, author.
2. What is the most rewarding thing about volunteering?
The constant discovery. Being in an environment that enriches me and allows me to share with the public the excitement of archaeology, the need to understand other cultures and other times, and the importance of the past to the present.
3. Tell us about the differences between working at the Museum and volunteering at the Museum.
In addition to what I said above, it’s the opportunity to help shape the programs that further the mission of the Museum, to create a public message in ways that feature the traditions of other cultures and the archaeological discoveries that change and enhance our view of the past.
4. What is your favorite thing about leading tours?
The look in a child’s eyes at the wonder of it all; when understanding of other people, other cultures, becomes apparent, and he or she realizes that difference is not a bad thing.
5. What do you like to do when you are not at the Museum?
Oh gosh—write, go to theater and concerts, hang out at other museums, read, walk, play with my puppy, and most importantly, the intellectual stimulation of exchanging ideas with other people.
6. What’s your favorite Penn Museum story? (It doesn’t necessarily have to be related to your work.)
Well, in addition to the research I do for the biographies I’m writing (about an archaeologist and an archaeological artist, who both worked for the Museum), I think one of the best stories I know illustrates how much the staff and volunteers love the Museum: During the Great Depression, when the Museum’s funds were at a minimum and staff was skeletal, the Director could be seen sweeping the galleries after hours. That’s dedication!