No bones about it


Janet Monge has two great loves in life: South Philly and bones. The former she declares is "my favorite place in the world," which speaks volumes since the 54-year-old from Second and Morris streets has spanned the globe — from Africa to Australia and throughout nearly all of Europe — for her job at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology, where she teaches several anthropology classes and has worked as the keeper of skeletal collections since 1982.

Each day, Monge works alongside the museum’s nearly 12,000 skeletons — mostly human — dating as far back as 10,000 years. Although they’re not displayed anymore, they do get a lot of use by students and researchers from across the country. It’s Monge’s job to keep everything about the collection in order — from scheduling use, to ensuring proper upkeep and maintenance to administrative work.

In 2003, Monge and former co-worker Alan Mann wanted to create an exhibit for visitors to the museum at 3260 South St. that would offer the education and instill the fascination they’d experienced working one-on-one with history for so long. Years of planning and talks with an exhibit interpreter and a designer resulted in "Surviving: The Body of Evidence," an interactive, multimedia exhibition that’s centered on individual visitors.

The bones don’t make an appearance but served as inspiration to the duo — each a co-curator for the show on display until May of next year, when, hopefully, it will travel to museums across the nation for five years.

"In museums, we’re always thinking about our audiences," Monge said, "and ways of actually really getting the information across to them. [Alan and I] are both crazy-devoted-to-education kind of people. We wanted to expand our horizons and make an excellent interactive exhibit."

"Surviving" takes up 4,000 square feet of the third floor of the museum that just underwent a year of renovations. Dozens of computers and televisions dot the six-room exhibit, where visitors are encouraged to apply what they’re learning about the evolution of the human body to their own family tree. Traits like bad joints and medical processes like childbirth can be traced through the history of man, Monge said.

"It was designed so [visitors] can understand we’re not these kind of perfectly designed creatures, we have many imperfections that come from the course of evolutionary history," she said.

Monge, who grew up in Upper Darby, said she wasn’t someone who always knew what she wanted to do. Rather, it was an anthropology class at Penn State University that piqued her interest and moved her to further her studies at Penn, where she graduated with a Ph.D. in the subject in ’90.

At the time, Monge was looking for a place to live in West Philly, where her parents had once resided, to no avail. Her Realtor coerced her into looking at the house she now lives in and Monge put a bid in the very same day. It’s a decision she said she hasn’t regretted, especially because she’s felt welcome every day.

"Everybody has their place in Philadelphia they love," she said. "I really think I found the perfect place. I don’t think you necessarily have to be born and raised here, the mentality just jives and rings true to my own mentality."

Her current job opened up while she was a student at Penn, and afforded her the opportunity to travel, checking out excavation sites and conducting research on skeletons, something, she said, does not "freak [her] out.

"I think that I’ve always been interested in the kinds of things that are not all that obvious. When you work with skeletons, you’re trying to understand the living person the skeleton represents," she said. "It’s got a little bit of a mystery about it."

And yet, solving "mysteries" — or at least having fun attempting to — is a goal of "Surviving," which was created with a $1.87 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

Visitors are first educated on their inherited strengths and capabilities, followed by displays of more than 100 casts of fossil bones that date back thousands of years. In another room, scientists, like Charles Darwin and Mary Leakey, offer audio clips of what they might say today about their discoveries. Then, visitors learn about common maladies and complications in human health history — some that have caused immunities, like plagues, and others that affect us today or can be passed down through generations, like impacted wisdom teeth.

The exhibit was written on an eighth-grade level, and it’s Monge’s hope young and old alike will relish the information it offers. There’s no audio or tour guides, rather, it’s "go at your own pace," she said.

"The definition of humanness is that we’re social beings, so we made the exhibit a social experience," Monge said. "We ask you to look at other people around you, and talk to them as you make your way through the exhibit."

Acting as co-curator was an extremely heavy workload to take on, Monge said, adding she’s probably worked 20 hours a day for the past six months. She’s carried out her regular duties as the keeper of skeletal collections while working with Mann, the exhibit interpreter and the designer to ensure the show was what they envisioned.

The response since the April 19 opening has been overwhelmingly positive, Monge said, adding she often can be found hanging out with families taking in the exhibit.

"I’ve had students who said they thought it was like nothing they’ve ever seen. A lot of science museums get the point across, but [the students] didn’t think it was anywhere near effective," she said. "I’ve always thought it was a great exhibit, and when people would say that to me totally unsolicited, it would knock my socks off."