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The Early Decades: 1877–1899

At the close of the Centennial, appeal letters were sent out to the various exhibitors asking for donations of objects to the new Museum's permanent collection. Beyond these appeals, it wasn’t long before gifts and bequests began to reach Memorial Hall from citizens who saw in the new institution both a continuation of the Centennial's ideals and an opportunity to provide the public and those in industry with objects of good design and craftsmanship. Soon, the collections would expand to encompass fine and decorative art objects as well, including those made in Europe and Japan. European ceramics in particular figured prominently among the Museum's earliest acquisitions. Books came in as donations as well--in fact, the Museum was the first to have a Library from its very beginning.

For the first few years that it was open, the Museum charged a small admission fee. This policy was abandoned in 1881, however, and the Museum would remain free to the public for nearly 80 years.

In 1882, the first installment of the Bloomfield Moore gift was received, given by writer and philanthropist Mrs. Clara Bloomfield Moore in memory of her husband. Antique furniture, enamels, carved ivories, jewelry, metalwork, glass, pottery, porcelain, early books, fans, textiles, costumes, and paintings comprised the outstanding collection. The following year, in 1883, Elizabeth Duane Gillespie, the great-granddaughter of Benjamin Franklin and the lead organizer of the Centennial Exhibition’s controversial Women’s Pavilion, founded the Associate Committee of Women (later known as the Women’s Committee) and served as its first president. In its first few years of existence, the Committee not only focused on enriching the Museum’s collections but also contributed at least $30,000 toward the maintenance of the School.

Initially, the Corporation of the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art was managed by a self-perpetuating Board of Trustees of twenty-two members. The officers included a President, two Vice Presidents, a Treasurer, a Secretary, and a Curator. Standing Committees of the Board included the Executive Committee, the Committee on Museum, the Committee on Instruction, and the Committee on Finance. The position of Museum Director grew out of the position of Curator--in fact, the first Curator, Dalton Dorr, was appointed Director in 1892. In this capacity he presumably performed the duties of Director, Secretary, and Curator simultaneously, until 1899 when William Platt Pepper was elected Director. Dorr then continued simply as Secretary and Curator until his death in 1901.

In 1893, the Department of Textiles, Lace and Embroidery was organized (one of Museum's first three departments; the other two being Pottery and Numismatics). Originally, the department was to serve as a design and technical resource for textile students at the School. Its first exhibition, displaying the collection of Countess de Brazza and illustrating the history of lace manufacture, was shown the following year. Acquired for the Museum by the Associate Committee of Women, it became the nucleus of the department’s lace collection.

Perhaps the next major expansion in the Museum's collection also occurred in 1893, the year that Anna H. Wilstach, widow of a Philadelphia leather manufacturer, bequeathed her large painting collection to the city--as well as an endowment of half a million dollars to purchase additional works of art. Her bequest included works that constituted the beginning of the American paintings collection. Among the first purchases with the fund she established were works by James Abbott McNeil Whistler and George Inness in 1895, and The Annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner, the first painting by the young African American artist to enter a public museum collection in the United States, in 1899.

With such growth, the need for additional space soon became obvious. Ever-increasing attendance made that need even more pressing--in 1894 alone, 379,419 visitors came through the Museum’s doors. Thus, at the urging of the Fairmount Park Commission, Philadelphia's City Council appropriated funds to design a new museum. The following year an announcement was made that a competition would be held to determine the design of the new structure.

Major Exhibitions

  • 1879: Collection of Coins and Medals
  • 1883: Arms and Armour
  • 1888/1889: American Art Industry: Pottery and Porcelain

Major Gifts and Acquisitions

  • 1876: The Robert W. Lewis gifts and bequests of Asian ceramics and metalwork
  • 1882: The Bloomfield Moore Collection of Decorative Arts
  • 1889: John Archibald Woodside, Sr.’s Still Life with Rabbits
  • 1893: The W. P. Wilstach Painting Collection
  • 1897: The General Hector Tyndale Memorial Collection of ceramics
  • 1899: Henry Ossawa Tanner's The Annunciation