UPenn Professor Tells of Philadelphia's Importance to Museums Worldwide

Jacob Colon, for GPA -- On May 15, Dr. David Brownlee presented a lecture entitled, "Philadelphia, the Museum City," at the Wagner Free Institute of Science. Brownlee, the Frances Shapiro-Weitzenhoffer Professor in the History of Art at the University of Pennsylvania, beautifully dissected the history of some of the city's many significant museums. The term “Museum City” serves as an effective reminder of the City of Brotherly Love's cultural prestige. As if being the birthplace of modern democracy wasn't enough, Philadelphia is also the birthplace of the modern museum. 

Birth of the Museum

Brownlee opened his lecture by describing that, for as long as fine art has existed, works of fine art were owned primarily by aristocrats and royalty, and displayed in their homes. Rarely would the public get a glimpse of such collections. It wasn't until the American Revolution in the late eighteenth century that viewing art was thought of as a public event. Democratic culture in the newly formed United States promoted education as a right belonging to all citizens, and Philadelphia was the nation's cultural capital. Hence, the modern museum was born.

Charles Willson Peale was a member of the Sons of Liberty and a soldier in the American Revolutionary War. Today, however, he is better known for the portraits he painted of some of the war's most noteworthy figures. An avid naturalist as well, Peale amassed a giant collection of fossils and biological specimen from all over the world. Clearly influenced by the recent democratic revolution, he established a venue that made his collection accessible to all citizens of Philadelphia. Though not unanimously considered the world's first or oldest museum, the Philadelphia Museum (1786) is widely recognized as the mold for all museums that exist today.

The first space to adopt the practices of the Philadelphia Museum was the Louvre Palace in Paris, France. King Louis XV held limited public art exhibitions when the Louvre was still a palace, but this does not fit the definition of a museum. The Louvre became a true museum during the French Revolution, when ownership of the Palace was transferred from the King to the new French Republic, and thus, to the people of France. The museum was officially opened in 1793. 

Museums in Philadelphia

At the turn of the nineteenth century, Philadelphia's museum scene began to expand. Peale co-founded the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1806. Originally located at 10th and Chestnut Streets, the Academy is the oldest art museum and school in the United States.

The Franklin Institute (1825) and the Academy of Natural Sciences (1828) were the next museums to open in the city. The Academy of Natural Sciences was actually founded in 1812, making it the oldest natural sciences institution in the Western World. Both the Franklin Institute and the Academy of Natural Sciences were started as museums in the sense that they employed "public enlightenment and professional instruction," according to Dr. Brownlee. Their services were offered at no cost to the public, which was an extremely novel idea for the world. The Academy was initially so popular, that a ten-cent admission fee was issued to curb the overwhelming waves of visitors.

The Wagner Free Institute of Science (1865) sought to be even less exclusive than the Franklin Institute and the Academy of Natural Sciences. Admission to the Wagner's taxidermy collection and to its world-class lectures has been free since the museum's inception. The architect who designed the Wagner, John McArthur, Jr., is better known for designing Philadelphia City Hall, which was at one point the tallest building in the world.

In 1876, the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition celebrated one hundred years of American independence. Held in Fairmount Park (the country's largest urban park), the Exposition was the second ever World's Fair to be hosted in the United States next to the 1853 World's Fair in New York. Specially crafted for the Centennial Exposition was Memorial Hall (now the Please Touch Museum), whose extensive art gallery was named the Pennsylvania Museum of Art. In the 1920s the Pennsylvania Museum of Art packed its bags and found a new home in what is today the famed Philadelphia Museum of Art. The art school created in Memorial Hall, known originally as the Pennsylvania Museum School of Industrial Art, has since split into what are now the University of the Arts and Philadelphia University.

Additionally, though not opened for the Exposition itself, 1876 was an important year for two other Philadelphia museums. It witnessed the new home of home of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts by renowned architect Frank Furness, located on North Broad Street, and the new home of the Academy of the Natural Sciences, located on Logan Square.

The twentieth century saw no lag in the creation of museums in Philadelphia. Construction of the Philadelphia Museum of Art began in 1919, led by a team of architects that included Horace Trumbauer, Howell Lewis Shay, and Julian Abele, who was the first African-American graduate of the University of Pennsylvania's architecture program. The museum was finished in 1928, one year after the completion of the Free Library of Philadelphia (1927), also designed by Abele.

French architect Paul Philippe Cret was also responsible for much of the museum fever that took place in 1920s Philadelphia. Cret was the was the lead designer of the original Barnes Foundation (1925), located in Merion, PA, and the Rodin Museum (1929), located on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. According to founder Albert C. Barnes, the Barnes Foundation was established to promote "the advancement of education and the appreciation of the fine arts," demonstrating an attitude similar to that of Charles Willson Peale.

The Benjamin Franklin Parkway is today home to one of the world's largest museum rows. The Franklin Institute was relocated to the Parkway in 1932, and in 2012, the Barnes Foundation was reopened down the street from the Rodin Museum. The Parkway now consists of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Academy of Natural Sciences, the Rodin Museum, the Free Library of Philadelphia, the Franklin Institute, and the Barnes Foundation.

Dr. Brownlee added to this feat that the Barnes Foundation, with its ultra-modern design, is the "first great building of the twenty-first century."

After Dr. Brownlee spoke, many in the audience had questions about future museums planned in Philadelphia. Is the Philadelphia Museum of Art going to be expanded? Are the rumors about an Alexander Calder museum true? Whatever happened to the Revolutionary War museum that was to be built in Valley Forge?

But the real message of the lecture was the influence of the city's past successes and failures. To better understand Philadelphia's present and future, it is crucial to know its history. Amazingly enough, Philadelphia's past tells the story of the modern day museum. Dr. Brownlee said it best: museums "remember the past while opening the curtains to the future." 

Images in slideshow courtesy of Wagner Free Institute of Science. The last image in the slideshow is credited to David Graham.