Edwin Atlee Barber was Curator/Secretary of the Philadelphia Museum of Art from 1901 to 1907, Director/Curator from 1907-1916 and Honorary Curator of American Pottery and Porcelain from 1893 to 1916. His great interest was pottery, porcelain, and ceramics, primarily early American works. A scholar and prolific writer, Barber wrote numerous articles on his specialty, many of which were published. He remains today a pioneer scholar in his field.
Born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1851, Barber's family included distinguished heroes of the Revolutionary War, as well as early captains of industry. When he was a child, Barber's family moved to Pennsylvania and then to Iowa, but Barber returned East for his schooling. He graduated from the Williston Seminary in East Hampton, Massachusetts, in 1869, and then attended Lafayette College where he studied English. In 1880, Lafayette College conferred upon Barber a Master of Arts degree, and in 1893, he received from the College a Doctorate of Philosophy.
In 1874, Barber went west with the United States Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories. The following year his travels took him to sites of Indian ruins in Utah and Arizona where his pottery interests most likely were stimulated. At this time Barber also was reporting for the New York Herald as a special correspondent. In 1879 Barber returned to the Philadelphia area to become a Post Office Superintendant and later an Officer of the U.S. Civil Service Examining Board.
Barber became involved with museum interests in Philadelphia. In 1879 he was appointed Chief of the Department of Archaeology of the Permanent Exhibit in Fairmount Park, and in 1893, was appointed Honorary Curator of Pottery and Porcelain at the then Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art. In addition, he was the Secretary of the Corporation and Curator from 1901 to 1916. In a letter to Morris Carter of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Barber outlined his own tasks: "Secretary of the Corporation and various committees, Acting Curator of all the twelve departments of the Museum; arrange and install all of the collections, prepare all of the labels for printing; edit the Museum Bulletin and Annual Report, and prepare for publication all of the Guides, Handbooks, catalogues and Art Primers; conduct the Bureau of Identification of Art Objects; collect the annual Membership dues; act as Superintendent of the building and have direct charge of the guards and all other employees." Later in 1907, after Pepper's death, his title was changed from Curator to Director.
Barber's tenure at the Museum was during a critical period of growth and self-definition for the Museum. Through Barber's influence the Museum placed a great importance on the decorative arts, a focus which has remained through the years. An avid collector and a recognized authority, especially of Pennsylvania German pottery and early American glassware, Barber also is the author of the acclaimed text, Pottery and Porcelain of the United States.
Barber spelled his middle name with a capital L, as Edwin AtLee Barber, whenever the choice was left up to him; but others usually spelled it with a small l, including the Library of Congress. Barber married Nellie Louise Parker in 1880. On December 12, 1916, Barber died of pneumonia, and was survived by his wife and their daughter.