The Penn Museum, the University of Pennsylvania’s archaeology museum, has one of the largest collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts in the United States. There are more than 42,000 objects, including the largest sphinx in the Western Hemisphere and the third largest in the world. The head curator of the collection is University of Pennsylvania’s Eckley Brinton Coxe, Jr Professor of Egyptology Dr. David Silverman, one of the world’s leading experts on Egyptian history. He was a curator of the blockbuster Treasures of Tutankhamun exhibit which brought 53 artifacts from the famous tomb to the United States for the first time in the late 1970s, and was the national curator of the even grander blockbuster, Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs, thirty years later. He has led multiple archaeological excavations in Egypt and is widely published on Egyptian history, epigraphy, language, art, and religion.
There was a time when being taught by an Ivy League professor preeminent in his field was a privilege reserved for very few, but it’s a brave new world out there now, and the University of Pennsylvania is offering a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) through Coursera entitled Introduction to Ancient Egypt and Its Civilization. It will be taught by Dr. Silverman who developed the course using references to the Egyptian artifacts in the Penn Museum. MOOCs on ancient Egypt have been offered before by many institutions of higher learning, but none of them had access to a collection like the Penn Museum’s to illustrate the coursework. Silver spent two years developing this course and its sequels, researching the material, writing scripts for the lectures and choosing hundreds of photographs as visual aids. A crew for the university’s School of Arts and Sciences Online Learning filmed the galleries of the Penn Museum for days, working around the museum’s hours so that students will get the kind of unobstructed view of the objects on display that is virtually impossible in crowded real life.
The class begins on October 31st with a showing of the original The Mummy with Boris Karloff. Okay no. I made that up because of the coincidental Halloween opening date, but it would be a pretty entertaining overture, especially since the faux “archaeology” in that movie is so egregiously wrong on every possible level that it even eclipses Karloff’s outstanding makeup in horror quotient. In reality, the course consists of five filmed lectures about an hour long. The lectures will be supplemented with quizzes and project assignments, and students will be able to engage in online discussions of the material.
A prolific author, speaker, and exhibition curator, Dr. Silverman developed the course with an eye to answering the many questions he has encountered over the years. “I wanted to offer a course that tapped into the deep fascination that so many people—myself included—bring with them as they explore the art and culture of the ancient Egyptians,” he noted. “My hope is that through this course many questions will be answered—and new questions will arise. Ancient Egypt’s culture and achievements are worthy of a lifetime of study and exploration.”
As the course description notes, each hour-long videotaped lecture focuses on a different subject: History and Chronology; The Pharaoh and Kingship; Gods and Goddesses; The Pyramids and the Sphinx; Mummies and Mummification. Part two of the course explores Principles of Egyptian Art; The Basics of the Language of Ancient Egypt – Hieroglyphs; Magic; Akhenaten, Tutankhamun, and the Religion of the Aten; and The Burial of Tutankhamun and the Search for his Tomb.
If you are fortunate enough to be in Philadelphia or environs on Saturday, December 10th, there will be an end of course Open House with Dr. Silverman at the Penn Museum from 11:00 AM to 3:00 PM. Students will enjoy talks by museum Egyptologists, tours of the gallery, a mummification workshop, book signings and an Egyptian-inspired lunch at the museum café.
Already 20,000 people have signed up for the course. The MOOC is free of charge — there’s a fee of $49 if you want to get a certificate — and once it’s complete, all students will receive email notification of the second course in the series: Wonders of the Ancient World, which is schedule to launch in early 2017.