Petition opposes museum layoffs
These days, finding a balance between academics and economics is crucial.
That balance motivated the museum’s administrators to discontinue 18 research specialist positions at the Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology last November, effective May 31.
But more than 2,000 people in a variety of fields around the world signed an online petition, posted Jan. 7, claiming the museum went too far.
The museum defends its restructuring as necessary to maintain fiscal stability and its missions.
Gunder Varinlioglu, who received her Ph.D. in Art and Archaeology in the Mediterranean World from Penn, created the petition with Omur Harmansah, professor of Archaeology and Egyptology and Ancient Western Asian Studies at Brown University.
“There was such a public outcry over the issue that it had to be brought together,” said Varinlioglu.
Several archaeology blogs and letters circulating in academic listservs have also questioned the museum’s actions.
The museum “has always been about research and not really exhibits, and that’s what differentiates it from others,” said Varinlioglu, who said the move made the museum seem “like a business rather than the non-profit it is supposed to be.”
Varinlioglu also criticized the lack of transparency behind the museum’s actions, since its finances are not public.
“We don’t know if they tried to do any fundraising or approached any alumni or exhausted all their resources,” she said.
“The broader underlying concerns are how you treat your own employees,” said Paul Zimmerman, a research associate whose position has not been affected and who wrote a personal letter to museum director Richard Hodges and Penn President Amy Gutmann protesting the decision.
Zimmerman and Varinlioglu also raised concerns that those laid off may not be able to find new employment.
But Hodges stressed that the museum has worked personally with each of the 18 researchers to try to help them secure other sources of funding. He added that the Museum announced the restructuring in November to give researchers enough time to explore new positions – even though the timing exposed the museum to criticism.
“If you don’t work in a museum, you have to put a lot of effort into understanding what’s necessary to maintain these high standards,” said Hodges. “But the more time I spend with [petitioners and journalists], the less time I’ve had to support these researchers.”
In a letter sent to researchers, he emphasized that research remains “central to the mission of the Penn Museum,” and that five of the 18 researchers laid off will continue to work with the museum in some capacity.
The letter goes on to explain that one of the original goals of the soon-to-be disbanded Museum Applied Science Center for Archaeology unit – to raise income – has not been met.
As a result, the museum is pursuing a new five-year strategy to better adhere to its original missions of being a research center and a museum while still generating sufficient revenues.
“We are the largest research entity in the U.S. and have more expeditions than any other universities,” said Hodges. “We’re trying to sustain in difficult times, and it isn’t always easy.”