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Centennial Origins: 1874–1876

In 1876, Philadelphia marked the 100th anniversary of American independence with the International Exhibition of Arts, Manufacturers, and Products of the Soil and Mine--commonly referred to as the Centennial Exhibition. The first great international fair to be held in the United States, the Exhibition celebrated the country’s thriving arts, industry, and commerce. It was staged on more than 285 acres in Fairmount Park. More than ten million visitors toured pavilions representing each of the American states and marveled at the artistic and industrial achievements on view in exhibits from 37 foreign countries.

One of the Centennial's most enduring legacies was its Art Gallery, which eventually became known as Memorial Hall. The building had been constructed as a permanent structure in 1874–75 for $1,564,000, intended to house more than 4,000 works of fine and applied arts.

Philadelphians recognized that the Centennial Exhibition was a unique opportunity to form a nucleus of objects that could, in time, grow and benefit the city’s industries. So together, representatives of the city’s leading educational institutions, as well as state and city authorities, actively pursued this goal--envisioning the creation of a museum along the lines of the recently completed South Kensington Museum in London (today known as the Victoria and Albert Museum). This museum would be different, however, in that it would also have an active school as a close adjunct; a place where creative craftsmen could be trained for the growing enterprises of the United States.

Thus the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art was chartered in February 1876, establishing "a Museum of Art, in all its branches and technical application, and with a special view to the development of the Art Industries of the State, to provide instruction in drawing, painting, modeling, designing, etc., through practical schools, special libraries, lectures and otherwise." The doors of Memorial Hall were reopened to the public on May 10, 1877, exactly one year after the inauguration of the Centennial Exposition.