Julian Siggers once endured two hours of having a sharpened ox bone repeatedly jabbed into his back — all so he could better understand the art of prehistoric tattooing.
“Initially, I thought I’d get a volunteer, but nobody did,” said Siggers, the current director of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology. “It did hurt like hell. It was an unpleasant experience.”
Siggers, who grew up just 12 miles from Stonehenge, may be in for some more pain, after it was announced Thursday he is set to become the Field Museum’s new CEO. He takes over from Richard Lariviere, who announced plans to retire last August after leading the museum since 2012.
Like cultural institutions across the city, the Field has been closed since mid-March, and there’s no clear sense of when it might be allowed to reopen.
The affable Englishman was putting a cheerful face on things Thursday, while chatting from his home in Pennsylvania.
“Under Richard Lariviere’s stewardship, the museum is in a pretty good position these days,” said Siggers, 56. “Obviously, all museums are under extreme duress. I have absolute confidence the Field will move through it and at the other end we’ll thrive.”
Siggers was the unanimous choice of a 14-member search committee, which included business and civic leaders, as well as Field Museum scientists and trustees, according to a museum news release. The museum’s board of trustees elected Siggers as president and CEO at a meeting held Tuesday.
“Julian combines a deep love for the wonder of scientific discovery with a record of leading museums to be vibrant and inclusive resources belonging to the whole community,” said David Hiller, the chair of the search committee and a Field Museum trustee.
Siggers has a doctorate from the University of Toronto, with a focus on prehistoric humans in the Middle East, as well as bachelor’s and master’s degrees in archeology from the University College London.
He’s coming from an institution focused on ancient world cultures. But he also spent 12 years working at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, which has a mission similar to the Field’s, he said.
“So I’m very familiar with natural history museums, and I have a huge passion for them,” he said. “I’m particularly drawn to them now because I think their relevance is more important than ever as we face so many environmental challenges. The Field Museum research is perfectly situated, not just to capture the wonder of discovery but also to address these really difficult issues everybody needs to know about.”
Under different circumstances, Siggers said he’d likely be shuttling back and forth between his home and Chicago to prepare for his new job. The coronavirus shelter-in-place rules have made that impossible.
He said his early focus at the Field will be overseeing the ongoing renovation of the Native North American Hall, as well as trying to diversifying attendance.
“Natural history museums are fortunate in that they are attractive to a wider array of people than perhaps some art museums are; I really want to capitalize on that,” he said.
As for that tattoo — one of several — it seems to fit the personality of a guy who also has had a “lifelong passion” for British motorcycles, although he says both his riding and tattooing days are behind him now. You’re more likely to find him in the kitchen cooking a “good curry,” or perhaps something with Mediterranean flavors. Siggers, who is married to a sculptor, says he also enjoys fly fishing.
“My motorcycling days may be past me, particularly in a climate like Chicago’s,” he said.