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Ceramic slides in the archives.

In the current issue

Hopeful Science in Bleak Times

The Legacy of the WPA Laboratories During the Great Depression

Author: Vaughn Ortner and Marie-Claude Boileau

Read the Full Article

During the 1930s, millions of Americans struggled to sustain themselves economically due to the manifold challenges of the Great Depression.

The Emergency Relief Appropriations Act of 1935 was passed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to create consistent government jobs that put unemployed Americans back to work. Of all such ventures, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) was among the most impactful due to its hearty budget and many years in operation. The WPA provided many cash-strapped American families with an income, in addition to equipping workers with skills and contributing to national infrastructure, at a time when unemployment reached nearly one-fourth of the population.

The WPA also reached into the arts and academic fields. At museums, and at the Penn Museum in particular, a number of WPA projects ranging from artifact analysis to bibliographic work and mural painting were carried out by workers who were paid by the WPA. Projects involving science were provided opportunities to deploy laboratory methods on a large scale, leading to a legacy of research that extended far beyond the end of this Depressionera program, and the Museum’s ceramics laboratories serve as a prominent example.

Current Issue

Expedition 65-2 cover.

Passports to the Past

A century ago, the New Deal's support for ceramic labs brought the world to the Penn Museum.

Fall 2023

Vol. 65 No. 2

In This Issue:

  • Dispatches from the Field
  • Documenting Damage to Ukraine's Heritage
  • From Clay Tablets to Text Messages
  • An interview with Laura Hortz Stanton
  • An Etruscan Stone Speaks

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Byzantine gold coin.

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Members receive three issues of Expedition per year mailed to their homes, plus exclusive online digital access to the last three issues. Explore the other exciting and exclusive benefits for Penn Museum Members and choose the Membership level that’s right for you.

A collage of past Expedition issue covers.

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The Penn Museum has published Expedition (ISSN 0014-4738) since 1958. It includes peer-reviewed articles on current findings of archaeologists and anthropologists, the latest on upcoming exhibitions and events, and a window into the labs, classrooms, archives, and people of the Penn Museum.

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