Pulse: Chatter: Night at the Museum

Jessica Pressler investigates: Is a dead archeologist haunting the galleries at Penn?

Unlike in the recent movie Night at the Museum — in which historical exhibits come alive after dark to comically terrorize a security guard played by Ben Stiller — the assorted ephemera at Penn’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology tend to stay put. But Brian McDevitt, the museum’s head of security, had his own nocturnal run-in this past winter. Late one evening in December, after a false fire alarm in the Etruscan corridor, the security guard gave his surveillance tapes a perfunctory check — and was jolted by what he saw. “I’m not a big ghost guy,” says McDevitt, a beefy man with a no-bullshit demeanor. “But this thing makes you a believer.”

There on the tape, flitting amid the sarcophagi and shards of Mediterranean pottery, was what appeared to be a phantom. “It looked like an image of a man, wearing a jeff hat, a trench coat and a scarf,” McDevitt says. While the guard says he’s since misplaced that original recording, the ghost was a repeat visitor; tapes from subsequent nights show a vaguely defined but noticeable something in the same hallway. To some, the image in the Etruscan corridor looks less like a person than a shimmer, like the heat above a grill on a hot summer day; to others, it’s clearly figurative. “There’s one where he turns around and looks right at you,” says Bethany Schell, an event planner at the museum who’s seen several of the tapes.

As news of the apparition spread, conversation naturally turned to whose ghost it might be. The prevailing theory, based on the specter’s outfit and stomping grounds, posits Keith DeVries, a prominent archeologist and professor of classical studies who kept an office at the museum until his death last year. Colleagues think he returned to complete unfinished research. “This is the kind of place where people retire and start coming in five days a week instead of seven,” says Schell. “We’ve all always said that the only way anyone gets out of here is in a pine box. Now the joke is, that’s not even the end anymore.”

The ghost hasn’t been spotted since February, leaving his followers to assume he must have finished up work. But just to be sure, the museum recently considered calling in the Philadelphia Ghost Hunters Alliance, a local organization that specializes in mediating between the spirit and human worlds. “We got stuff in here that’s, like, 5,000 years old,” McDevitt says. “I’m sure they’d find other stuff.”

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