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Gordon and the Penn Museum

Max Johnson Dugan

Published on

George Byron Gordon draws praise throughout literature about the Penn University Museum (henceforth “the Penn Museum”) as a pivotal figure in the institution’s history. He charted new directions for the museum in his work to expand the physical space of the museum and build new collections—most notably of Chinese objects. As the director of the Penn University Museum from 1910 to 1927, Gordon dramatically grew the collection and guided the Museum’s transition from a novel initiative with little bureaucracy into a highly structured institution. Although the respective accounts by Charles Custis Harrison and Eleanor King and Bryce Little describe Gordon’s acquisition in admirable terms, his correspondence with Dimitri Andalaft highlights the asymmetries that expanded the Penn Museum’s holdings.

Gordon arrived in 1903 as Assistant Curator in General Ethnology after finishing his doctorate at Harvard the same year. The Penn Museum had been founded in 1887 and, by Gordon’s arrival, the collection was exceeding the existing institutional structures. Gordon held an assistant professorship of anthropology from 1907 to 1915. From 1910 to his death in 1927, Gordon was the director of the Penn Museum. Gordon died January 30, 1927 after severely fracturing his skull at the Racquet Club in Philadelphia. After attending a dinner and talk hosted by the Wilderness Club, Gordon fell down the stairs onto the club’s marble floor. Charles Custis Harrison, then President of the Board of Managers of the Penn Musem, notes that no one saw the fall took place and posits that a heart attack may have caused the accident (Harrison, 6).

As director, Gordon shrewdly built up “duplicate” collections in anticipation of exchanges with other museums. Curators of ethnographic museums during Gordon’s time tended to conceptualize different objects of the same kind as “duplicates” (King and Little, 20 and 22) rather than variations. They use the example of a harpoon, writing: “One well-made Bering Strait Eskimo harpoon, for instance, could stand for all other harpoons from the same group” (King and Little, 22). This understanding of collections, in combination with financial constraints, led ethnographic museums to exchange “duplicate” specimens with other museums. While this was a widespread practice, King and Little contend that Gordon went further by systematically collecting “duplicates” for later exchanges. If the acquisition practices of these museums extracted artifacts from their cultural milieu, their exchange by museums only furthered this process of fragmentation.

Gordon was born on August 4, 1870 in New Perth, Prince Edward Island. Gordon studied for one year at the University of South Carolina before transferring to Harvard University (King and Little, 19). Though he initially planned to study engineering, the expedition in Copan shifted his focus to archaeology, specifically of the Americas. Gordon’s first significant fieldwork took place in 1892 at the Mayan site at Copan in the Honduras on an expedition sponsored by Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Gordon was initially the surveyor and second-in-command to John G. Owens, Harvard’s first graduate student in American archaeology. Gordon then became the director of the expedition after Owens passed away from yellow fever. In 1893, Alfred P. Maudslay assumed leadership before it returned to Gordon in 1894. Gordon graduated cum laude in 1894 from Harvard’s Scientific School and then enrolled in the University’s graduate program in archaeology (King and Little, 20).

His shrewd negotiating and vigorous work to expand and variegate the museum’s collection comes to light in Gordon’s acquisition of NEP-80. The accounts of Gordon’s tenure as director focus on digs in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Crete, Palestine, and North, Central and South America as the source of the increased collection (Harrison, 8). In the case of NEP-80, correspondences between Gordon and Dimitri Andalaft betray a more exploitative acquisition strategy: offering a promissory note, reconfiguring the agreement while holding onto goods, and paying significantly less than initially offered.

Works Cited

Harrison, Charles Custis. “Dr. George Byron Gordon.” The Museum Journal 18, no. 1 (March, 1927): 5-8.

King, Eleanor M. and Bryce P. Little. "George Byron Gordon and the Early Development of The University Museum.” In Raven's Journey: The World of Alaska's Native People, edited by Susan A. Kaplan and Kristin J. Barsness (Philadelphia: The University Museum, 1986).