The Penn Museum’s building itself inspires awe and curiosity. Built over the course of more than a century (1899–2005), the Museum incorporates striking architectural styles, soaring galleries that house world-class collections, state-of-the-art laboratories that yield new discoveries each day, and beautiful public gardens that welcome visitors and passersby into serene green spaces.
In November, we celebrated the opening of the Museum’s reimagined Main Level. The first phase of the Building Transformation Campaign brought the new Africa Galleries and Mexico and Central America Gallery, renovated Main Entrance and adjacent Sphinx Gallery, restored Harrison Auditorium, and many visitor amenities.
The Museum breaks ground on its Building Transformation Campaign, which will renovate and reinstall over 44,000 square feet of space, restore original features of the building, and add important visitor amenities.
The Museum’s Warden Garden (surrounded by the original 1899 building) is temporarily removed to create space for the installation of equipment for the future air conditioning of the older wings, plus additional work and storage space under the Warden Garden. The Warden Sub-Garden project is led by Dagit/Saylor and made possible through the generosity of Charles K. Williams II, Ph.D. The Garden itself is then reinstalled, replacing the original 1899 reflecting pool with a new one modeled on the same plan.
The Mainwaring Wing for Collections Storage opens as a state-of-the-art storage facility with offices and environmentally controlled workspaces for the stewardship and study of the Museum’s organic collections. Named for A. Bruce and Margaret A. Mainwaring, two of the Museum’s most generous and longstanding benefactors, the four-story wing plus basement closes the Stoner Courtyard on the east side. The wing was designed by Atkin, Olshin, Lawson-Bell and references the earlier building with similar brickwork, windows, and materials. The Stoner Courtyard, designed by the Olin Partnership (now OLIN), creates another welcoming green space off of South Street.
The Academic Wing opens. The Museum’s construction projects had been interrupted by the Great Depression and World War II, making it difficult to resume the ambitious 1896 master plan as originally envisioned. The Museum implements a more modest proposal to unify the existing building: a 1968 design by Mitchell/Giurgola provides five new stories, with offices and classrooms for the Anthropology Department and a basement for collections storage, linked by pedestrian bridges, a café, and underground passages to the earlier wings.
The Administrative Wing, funded primarily by Eldridge Johnson, founder of the Victor Talking Machine Co. and chairman of the Museum Board in the 1920s, extends the Museum east. A courtyard includes life-size sculptures by Alexander Stirling Calder representing Asia, Europe, Africa, and America. Originally designed to serve the Museum’s growing education department, this wing, now known as the Sharpe Wing, will house galleries for collections from Africa, Greece, and Etruscan Italy, as well as changing exhibitions, collections storage, and offices.
The Coxe (Egyptian) Wing opens, with two main galleries and storage to house the Museum’s renowned Egyptian collection. Designed by Charles Z. Klauder (of Day and Klauder; Frank Miles Day had helped to create the 1896 master plan), the wing is named for Eckley B. Coxe, Jr., Museum benefactor and President (1910–1916) who personally financed six Museum expeditions to Nubia and Egypt. During construction, the great red granite Sphinx of Ramesses II is moved from the garden to the lower gallery of the Coxe Wing before the eastern wall of the gallery is bricked up.
The Harrison Wing opens, welcoming visitors to soaring galleries housing collections from Asia and to events in an immense auditorium. Named for visionary Penn Provost (1894–1910) and Museum President (1916–1929) Charles Custis Harrison, the Harrison Auditorium is an architectural wonder: one of the largest unsupported masonry floor-domes in the world spans 90 feet and supports the floor of the Rotunda above. The Guastavino engineering firm drew on ancient Catalan construction traditions to achieve this feat. The lack of pillars created a space with 800 unobstructed-view seats.
The Free Museum of Science and Art is renamed the University Museum.
The Museum opens as the Free Museum of Science and Art. It houses two floors of public galleries, the beautiful Widener Lecture Room, the Elkins Library (now Museum Archives), and a suite of laboratories and offices surrounding an Italian courtyard garden entered through an Asian-style gate. The Museum is one of the first fully electric public buildings in Philadelphia.
Wilson Eyre leads a team of architects (Cope and Stewardson as well as Frank Miles Day, all associated with Penn’s architecture school) in designing the master plan for a grand, enormous museum—even larger than the present-day building.
The Museum moves to the new University Library in the Furness Building, designed by noted Philadelphia architect Frank Furness. As artifacts from Nippur and other excavations arrive on campus, though, it becomes clear that the Museum will need its own building. When the City of Philadelphia donates a stretch of land between 34th Street and the Schuylkill River, the site for the Museum is selected, across from Penn’s Franklin Field. The project is supported by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the building underwritten by generous donors.
The Museum’s first displays open on the top floor of College Hall. This same year, the Penn-led expedition to Nippur begins uncovering stunning objects from ancient Mesopotamia.
The University of Pennsylvania founds a museum to bring together artifacts that embody the history of humanity. Penn prepares to lead the first U.S. expedition to the Middle East, which will uncover artifacts for the Museum’s earliest collection.
For more on the history and architecture of the Penn Museum, see Douglas M. Haller’s “Architectural Archaeology: A Centennial View of the Museum Buildings,” Expedition, 41 (1): 31–47.