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1920 - 1930

The roaring twenties was a landmark decade for the Museum, inside and out. In 1920 the first staff photographer was hired, and in 1922 the creation of a special room for the exhibition and storage of prints was announced. The next year, the Print Department was initiated under Arthur Edwin Bye, curator of Paintings. 1922 also saw the installation of the Tower Hill Room from London, purchased with funds contributed by Mr. and Mrs. John D. McIlhenny.

Construction on the new building was progressing, and by 1923, the terracing of the granite hill on which the Museum was to stand had been completed. The foundations of the building, as well as the broad, now iconic steps leading up to it from street level, had been laid. This was also the year that the Museum began appointing specific professional (as opposed to volunteer) curators to its different areas of study and collecting.

By 1925, the exterior masonry of the two outlaying pavilions of the Museum had been completed, leaving a dramatic void between the two structures. These wings were purposely constructed first in order to ensure a continued flow of city funds to complete the connecting central structure. Yet, even with the shell of the building not yet complete, temporary galleries were opened on the schedule imposed by the wills of both William L. Elkins and his son, George W. Elkins, as well as that of John H. McFadden. Their magnificent painting collections had been bequeathed to the Museum on the condition that suitable galleries in the projected building be prepared within a reasonable period of time following their deaths.

It was in October of 1925 that the distinguished art and architectural historian Fiske Kimball was appointed Director of the Museum, replacing Acting Director Samuel W. Woodhouse (who had taken over in 1923 when Director Langdon Warner left the Museum to take a position at Harvard). In dedicating himself to the future architectural development of the building’s interior as well as to the acquisition of objects worthy of the new Museum and the city, Kimball set the tone for a new era.

He believed that a museum should "express the world's artistic culture in all mediums, merging architecture, painting, sculpture and the decorative arts." In this capacity, he envisioned a "walk through time" for the new building, wherein works of art would be installed together in dramatic galleries enhanced with period architectural elements and historic interiors. While "period rooms" existed before, both at the Museum and elsewhere, Kimball’s overarching vision and meticulous attention to authenticity were in many ways legendary. His integrated and contextual approach spurred the installation plan, and continues to be a distinctive feature of the institution today.

In February 1926, shortly after the death of one of the Museum’s earliest supporters (and among its most constant and generous benefactors), The John D. McIlhenny Memorial Exhibition was opened to the public. These holdings of paintings, furniture, and an extraordinary group of Oriental rugs would enter the Museum’s permanent collection upon Mrs. McIlhenny’s death in the early 1940s. Meanwhile, the east portico was taking shape within scaffolding and beneath the boom of a steam-powered crane.

In July 1926, restoration of Mount Pleasant was completed and the historic house was opened to the public, furnished with sumptuous 18th century mahogany furniture, porcelain, glass, silver, and elegant reproduction textiles. The opening was celebrated with an exhibition entitled American Art on the Eve of the Revolution. A handbook, titled Mount Pleasant, was published and sold at both the Museum and at the home for 25 cents. Cedar Grove, the second Historic Fairmount Park home to be administered by the Museum, opened to the public as a "branch museum of colonial art and architecture" a year and a half later.

With an immense amount of interior work remaining, but with its exterior and Northern wing consisting of twenty second-floor galleries devoted to English and American art complete, the new Museum on Fairmount opened to the public on March 26, 1928. An inaugural exhibition included galleries devoted to the arts of Italy, the Netherlands, France, England, and America, featuring "not only paintings, but works of sculpture, furniture, tapestry weaving, gold and silversmithing, and other crafts. . ." Temporary galleries of medieval art were also opened, though the southern wing where they would ultimately be housed had yet to be completed.

At either side of these galleries were newly installed, geographically corresponding period rooms, bringing "to Philadelphia the air and spirit of a time long passed. . .the atmosphere of another age." Among these rooms were a colonial Pennsylvania-German kitchen and bedroom from Millbach Township, Pennsylvania; the drawing room from the town house of Samuel Powel, mayor of Philadelphia during the Revolution; a Neoclassical room from Salem, Massachusetts; rooms from one of the most grand homes of 18th-century England, Sutton Scarsdale Hall; a room from Wrightington Hall; and a room from the Treaty House in Upminster, England.

The arrival of the Charles M. Lea Collection of some 5,000 Old Master prints and drawings, including fine examples of German, Italian, Netherlandish, and French engraving, greatly enhanced the department of Prints toward the end of the year, so much so that monthly exhibitions of select objects from this growing collection began in February 1929 in the Print Room (still located at Memorial Hall).

Also in the winter of 1929, the Museum held a series of six concert events through a gift from Mrs. Mary Louise Curtis Bok. These concerts were presented by the Department of Chamber Music of the Curtis Institute of Music, and were fantastically successful. Over 30,000 people attended the first season, and the partnership between the Curtis Institute and the Museum continues to this day. Furthering the Museum’s commitment to the public, Fiske Kimball officially founded the Division of Education this year as well.

Philadelphia's enthusiasm for its new Museum, whose name was now shortened from the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art to the Pennsylvania Museum of Art, was strikingly apparent right away. In May 1929, an attendance record of one million visitors was proclaimed for its first year. At this point, the Museum was operating out of two buildings--the new building on Fairmount was home to most of the Museum’s holdings of European and American art; while its Oriental collections; prints and drawings; and study collections of ceramics, glass, metalwork, and textiles were still on view at Memorial Hall.

In 1929, the commitment to acquire the collection of French art connoisseur Edmond Foulc--some 200 objects including impressive Gothic and Renaissance sculpture, furniture, and the magnificent marble and alabaster choir screen from the Chapel of the Chateau at Pagny--signified the largest single purchase ever undertaken by a Museum. Coming as it did just before the stock market crash and secured by an interest-free bank loan, the purchase, worth more than one million dollars, was one that may not have been made in the leaner days of the following decade.

Major Exhibitions

  • 1920: The Building of the Temple: A Pageant
  • 1921: Colonial Silver
  • 1922: American Handicrafts
  • 1923: Chinese Pottery
  • 1924: Persian and Indian Miniatures; Furniture of the Chippendale Style; Chinese Paintings, Sculpture, and Antiquities; Illustrations by Philadelphia Artists
  • 1925: Prints by Contemporary Dutch Artists; Modern Textiles; Contemporary Hungarian Prints
  • 1926: The John D. McIlhenny Memorial Exhibition of Paintings, Sculpture, Rugs, Textiles, and Furniture; Notable Recent Acquisitions of Chinese Art; Works by William Blake; Sartain Exhibition; American Art on the Eve of the Revolution (at Mount Pleasant)
  • 1927: Memorial Exhibition of the Work of Mary Cassatt
  • 1928: The New Museum of Art Inaugural Exhibition
  • 1929: American Paintings; Early German Woodcuts; Oriental Carpets; The "Little Masters"; Contemporary Belgian Art

Major Gifts and Acquisitions

  • 1921: Impressionist works from the family of Alexander Cassatt; a large group of sculptures and miniature votive architectural models from Bodhgaya (site of the Buddha's enlightenment)
  • 1923: The Charles F. Williams Collection of European Decorative Arts; the Crofts Collection of Chinese Ceramics and Sculpture
  • 1924: The Fioretini Collection of European textiles and embroideries; the William L. Elkins Collection of Paintings; the George W. Elkins Collection of Paintings
  • 1925: The George W. Crofts Collection
  • 1926: The John D. McIlhenny Collection
  • 1928: The Charles M. Lea Collection of old master prints; the John H. McFadden Collection of 43 paintings (including Joseph Turner’s Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons); St. Genis-des-Fontaines Cloister; Saint-Laurent Portal
  • 1929: Commitment to acquire the Foulc Collection of Gothic and Renaissance art
  • 1929 and 1930: A collection of paintings by Thomas Eakins given to the Museum by his wife Susan Macdowell Eakins and their friend Miss Mary A. Williams

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