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Home | Articles | The Philadelphia Museum of Art: 125 Years of Collecting

The Philadelphia Museum of art is one of the largest and most important art museums in the united states. Its extensive collections enjoy both national and international acclaim and constitute over three hundred thousand works of art. Comprising a range of collecting spheres, the museum houses the departments of American Art; American Decorative Arts and Sculpture; Costumes and Textiles; East Asian Art; European Decorative Arts and Sculpture; European Painting; Indian and Himalayan Art; Modern and Contemporary Art; and Prints, Drawings, and Photographs.

The museum’s main building, prominently sited at the entrance to the city’s famed Fairmount Park, was constructed between 1919 and 1928. Designed in the Neo-Grec style by the Philadelphia architectural firm of Trumbauer, Zantzinger, Borie & Medary, the museum is widely considered an architectural masterpiece.

The preeminence Philadelphia gained early in the eighteenth century as a major artistic, intellectual, and creative center in the American Colonies led to widespread patronage and support of the arts and sciences that continues today. Subsequently, the museum’s Department of American Art is one of the largest and most significant in the country. From the museum’s founding during the Centennial Exposition of 1876, historically and artistically significant American architectural woodwork, furniture, decorative arts, painting, and sculpture were among the earliest concentrated fields of active collecting.

Today, important aspects of the American collections include eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American painting and sculpture, such as concentrated collections of the work of Charles Willson Peale (1741–1827), Thomas Eakins (1844–1916), and William Rush (1756–1833). The decorative arts collections include extensive holdings of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century furniture and silver; American ceramics, including Tucker porcelain and Rookwood and other art potteries; American traditional stoneware and earthenwares; Chinese export porcelains for the American market; American glass; the decorative arts of the Pennsylvania Germans; Shaker decorative arts; textiles; and folk crafts.

Providing a contextual environment, four American period room interiors are presented within the museum’s galleries. In addition, two of the most significant intact eighteenth-century houses in Philadelphia, Mount Pleasant (built 1763–1765) and Cedar Grove (built 1742, with later additions), both open to the public and situated in Fairmount Park, are administered and furnished by the museum.

To ensure the continued growth and expansion of permanent collections, research initiatives, and public programs, and in celebration of its 125th anniversary in 2001–2002, the Philadelphia Museum of Art is undertaking a major expansion with the acquisition of an adjacent landmark art deco structure. Built by the same architectural firm, this new building will add more than 75,000 square feet of much needed, architecturally significant public space. Along with this planned expansion program, a major anniversary gift drive is currently underway. Celebrating this milestone in the museum’s history promises to ensure the continued addition of a wide range of extraordinary works of art within the museum’s curatorial departments.

The accompanying articles present an eclectic mix of the museum’s multifaceted collections and highlight only a few of the current research and exhibition programs. Offering readers the tip of the iceberg, this brief literary encounter aims to tempt those who visit Philadelphia to experience these collections firsthand.

For more information about the museum and current and upcoming exhibitions, call 215.763.8100 or visit our Web site at www.philamuseum.org.

Jack L. Lindsey has been with the Philadelphia Museum of Art since 1986, and has served as its Curator of American Decorative Arts since 1991. He has published widely in the field, and most recently, Lindsey organized the museum’s 1999–2000 exhibition Worldly Goods: The Arts of Early Pennsylvania, 1680–1758 and authored its accompanying catalogue.

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