The End of MASCA?

Even though I bill myself on the “about” page of this blog as an archaeologist, I haven’t actually posted much here about archaeology. So here goes.

Well, actually, it’s not so much about archaeology, per se, as it is about my old stomping grounds, the Museum Applied Science Center for Archaeology (MASCA) at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. I worked, in varying capacities, in and for MASCA from 1993 to 2005. It’s there, running the computer lab, that I got serious about using computers in archaeology, and it was through MASCA that I was sent all over the Middle East as a surveyor. So it should be no surprise that I’ve remained interested in my old department. It, however, was a surprise to learn of its imminent dissolution.

Now, as anyone who’s worked at a museum can tell you, there is a tendency for museum departments to stagnate, and persist out of sheer inertia, even after they are no longer useful to the museum as a whole. Sometimes this is due to the unwillingness to deal with a persnickety hanger-on (in hopes that they’ll just grow old, die, and give up their office space), and sometimes it’s due to a weak managerial structure that lacks the power to reorganize when necessary. Though I would argue against it, I’m willing to concede that one could make a case for MASCA’s obsolescence. What I won’t concede, however, is the necessity of retaining good scientists at a research institution such as the University Museum. So I, along with the rest of the archaeological community, was shocked to learn that the Museum’s new director, Richard Hodges, had decided not only to dissolve the department but to also lay off its staff. (See the Daily Pennsylvanian articles about it here and here.)

Mind you, some of these scholars had worked at the Museum for decades. They’re productive and active researchers who bring the Museum lots of good publicity and help study the materials from dozens excavations, Penn sponsored and otherwise. Though that wing of the Museum is a dump, the work carried out there is of the highest quality. So the only plausible reason for dumping these researchers would be a really tight financial bind. That is, in fact, the rationale that Hodges gave. Unfortunately, however, the University President, Amy Gutmann, stated that it was a restructuring exercise unrelated to the recent financial crisis. So, clearly, these two are not on message. There was also very little transparency in the process, so if it was financially motivated, there was no public exploration of where money could be saved prior to the announcement.

In the past month, many prominent archaeologists have written open letters decrying the decision and urging other archaeologists to write letters to Hodges and Gutmann in hopes that they reconsider. So here is the letter that I sent them today. It’s not an especially well written or stirring piece of prose, but given my pedigree, I had to do my part.


Dear Drs. Hodges and Gutmann:

As a former MASCAteer and a Penn graduate, I have watched the recent imbroglio over MASCA’s fate with great personal and professional interest. Though even I could make a case for the dissolution of MASCA and the absorption of its researchers into other departments, your treatment of those researchers—their hasty firings—is, in a word, appalling.

Your failure to openly discuss your options prior to November’s announcement should trouble any outside observer. But, having announced your decision, the confusion of your public statements—each of you declaring different reasons for the decision—reeks of a poorly managed process. Since I was certainly not privy to any part of the process, I cannot imagine what your actual motives might have been. But, in light of the public outcry, I urge you to reconsider that decision.

MASCA’s involvement in major Penn-sponsored excavations, as well as in outside projects, has trained and employed Penn’s researchers and graduate students for years. Its ongoing contributions to the field have ensured that MASCA, through its ups and downs, remains an important nexus in the study and interpretation of archaeological remains. Its dissolution would cheapen the Museum’s reputation and make Penn a decidedly less attractive school for incoming students.

But, of course, MASCA is more than just a legacy department, a bauble or reminder of past glory. It is, in fact, home to researchers who have built their professional careers there and, through their work, built MASCA’s and the Museum’s reputation. Pat McGovern, Naomi Miller, and Kathleen Ryan, in particular, are productive scholars, much esteemed by their colleagues. Their work continues to advance their respective fields and bring publicity—professional and popular—to the University Museum. Losing them will do the Museum irreparable damage, as it will greatly undermine its reputation as a serious research institution.

If the department truly cannot be spared—a proposition which has not been effectively articulated—then you must at least, for the sake of the Museum, spare these researchers’ jobs.


Paul C. Zimmerman
PhD, Anthropology, Penn 2008
MA, Anthropology, Penn 1998
Research Associate, Near East Section, UPM 2008–2011
Research Associate, MASCA, UPM 1997–2005
Research Assistant, MASCA, UPM 1993–1997

Update 1/8/09
I urge all archaeologists to sign this online petition/open letter. As of tonight, there are nearly 300 signatures already.

2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. The End of MASCA? (by Paul Zimmerman) « Layoffs at the UPENN Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology 14 01 09
  2. Rolled Up Sleeves » A Response from Hodges (and my response to it) 10 02 09

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