Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

While Philadelphians in 1905 observed the centennial of the nation’s first art museum and school, the venerable Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Pittsburghers flocked to Harry Davis’s Nickelodeon, the first motion picture theater opened in the United States. In Harrisburg that year, on Tuesday, March 28, Governor Samuel W. Penny­packer (1843-1916) signed legislation creating “a museum for the preservation of objects illustrating the flora and fauna of the State, and its mineralogy, geology, archaeology, arts, and history.”

This year marks not only the centennial of the founding of The State Museum of Pennsylvania, but also the fortieth anniversary of the opening of the museum’s present building, the William Penn Memorial Museum Building, just to the north of the State Capitol Building. The museum is home to the largest repository of objects and artifacts chronicling the Commonwealth’s prehis­tory, history, and culture – numbering 3.6 million and growing! Organized into various collections – botany and zoology, archaeology, paleontology and geology, fine and decorative arts,industry and technology, military and political history, and popular culture – the museum’s treasures include dinosaur tracks dating to the Late Triassic Period of the Mesozoic Era (roughly about two hundred million years ago) that came to the museum in a most unusual way.

They were acquired in 1996 from Grater­ford State Correctional Institution in Montgomery County after an inmate discovered them on the grounds.The tracks appeared in one rock layer, until the museum’s senior curator of paleontology and geology, Robert M. Sullivan, and volunteers cut it into sections using heavy equipment so that it could be safely transported to The State Museum for further study.

The fine arts holdings encompass a number of paintings that chronicle the birth and growth of both state and nation, while others reflect emerging styles and movements in art. The museum prizes a well known version of Penn’s Treaty (circa 1830) by Edward Hicks (1780-1849), donated by Philadelphia art collectors and philanthropists Vivian and Meyer P. Potamkin in 1995-1996; Losing the Way (circa 1930), painted on a piece of door with house paints about a century later by Horace Pippin (1888-1946) of West Chester, a self-taught African American artist; and Christ Healing the Sick (1804) by master American artist Ben­jamin West (1738-1820), whose work influenced Hicks.

But the objects aren’t always particularly old or even vintage.

Each year the museum, in conjunction with the Greater Harrisburg Arts Council, showcases outstanding contemporary works of art in “The Art of the State,”® a prestigious, highly competitive juried exhibition open to Pennsylvania artists. The museum generally purchases one work of art from the exhibition for the permanent collection. From the thirty­-seventh annual competition, staged in 2004, the museum acquired Pittsburgh artist William B. Cravis’s timely and thought-provoking FACT-ORY, a mixed­media installation that asks, “Is history really factual or is it fiction, a story based on fact, and is it for sale to the highest bidder?” The museum occasionally commissions new art, such as a glass mobile sculpture by Robin Stan­away, entitled Continuum, which sums up the museum’s collections. The centerpiece of the museum’s majestic Memorial Hall, a bronze statue of William Penn, towering eighteen feet high and weighing thirty-eight hundred pounds, was designed by sculptor Janet de Coux (1904-1999) of Gibsonia, Allegheny County, and installed in 1965. Above the statue is a huge – and heroic – mural by Vincent Maragliotti (1888-1978), entitled The Vision of William Penn, that showcases individuals and events significant in the Commonwealth’s history.

The State Museum, administered by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, is empowered to purchase or “to receive for and on behalf of the Commonwealth, gifts or bequests of relics and other articles of historical interest.” And the citizens of Pennsylvania and beyond have responded generously.

“We engage in both passive and proactive collecting, which means we receive donations as well as purchase objects we’re interested in,” explains William Sisson, chief of the museum’s curatorial division. “Donations come from people in all walks of life, mostly in Pennsylvania, but also elsewhere, if the items have a Pennsylvania connection. We also borrow objects for specific exhibitions, which we may seek to add to our permanent collections.”

Perhaps most unconventional for a general museum is the popular culture collection, primarily from the twentieth century in such diverse categories as film, radio and television, travel and tourism, toys and games, and sports recreation. These are often “common, whimsical objects,” the type that people don’t normally associate with museum collections but which help document Pennsylvania’s role in the rise of mass leisure, explains Curt Miner, senior curator of the collection.

Items reflecting twentieth-century popular culture include the Karen Black­way collection, acquired through a combination of purchase and donation in 1998. The collection is comprised of more than one hundred toys and games – ­many in mint condition – owned by Blackway during her childhood in Shamokin, Northumberland County, in the 1950s and early 1960s. A non-descript goal-post section from Aliquippa High School, also donated in 1998, commemorates the school’s 1955 victory over rival Mt. Lebanon in the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League (WPIAL) state football championship. “Iron” Mike Ditka, later a college and professional football standout, was a junior on the Aliquippa squad that year. A collection of some three hundred movie posters donated in 2000 by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust – most of them representing “B” movies from the 1950s – had originally been displayed in the lobby of the Art Cinema Theater, a motion picture theater in downtown Pittsburgh that closed in the 1980s. The museum also has a set of clubs owned by golfing legend and Latrobe, Westmoreland County, native Arnold Palmer.

Mammal Hall, a dramatic gallery of thirteen dioramas showcasing the flora and fauna of Pennsylvania – perennially popular with visitors of all ages – opened in 1966 and was restored in 1993. The habitats are as true to life as possible. Every season of the year is presented, and animals are shown engaged in many kinds of behavior – looking for food, stalking prey,’ and caring for their young. Just around the corner from Mammal Hall, Dino Lab treats visitors to a behind-the-scenes look at the work of fossil preparation. Museum staff and volunteers are patiently chipping surrounding rock away from the fossilized bones embedded within the rock. Especially popular with museum visitors are Native American artifacts, including arrowheads, stone pipes, and sculptured objects, and the replica of a village that follows the life cycle of a Delaware Indian. There are examples of petroglyphs, ancient Indian rock carvings cut from bedrock with a pneumatic drill, hand tools and implements chronicling the evolution of industry and technology, and military insignia.

For visitors interested in transportation, there are all sorts of horse-drawn vehicles, including a huge Conestoga wagon, made in the Keystone State in 1840. This particular wagon, considered medium in size, could carry three tons of goods. Other vehicles include coaches, wagons, and a gleaming black Berlin carriage owned by Simon Cameron (1799-1889), President Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of war during the first two years of the Civil War. (Charges of rampant corruption forced Cameron to resign in 1862, after which Lincoln named him ambassador to Russia.) An even-more.­dramatic connection to the war, the colossal Pickett’s Charge, was painted by Peter Frederick Rothermel (1812-1895), born in Nescopeck, Luzerne County. A joint committee of the state legislature commissioned the imposing canvas, measuring sixteen by thirty-two feet, in July 1866. The museum also holds a number of important pieces acquired within, the past dozen or so years, including a landscape by Walter Emerson Baum; clay models of sculpture designed by George Gray Barnard for the State Capitol Building; a still life by Quita Brodhead; a portrait by Emlen Etting; several drawings by Edith Neff; and sculpture by Harry Bertoia.

The State Museum of Pennsylvania is more than a repository for an extraordinary number of specimens and artifacts. The museum’s mission is to not only collect, but to safeguard, exhibit, and interpret these objects and artifacts. Individual themes and specialized topics on a permanent or alternating basis are presented. Interpretation takes place in the museum’s publications, web site, exhibits and programs as well as in its collections. Moreover, the museum is the site and source of ongoing research, among its curators, and outside scholars and seekers of knowledge. “I like to say we’re like the ‘Smithsonian’ of Pennsylvania,” comments Sisson.

As with many institutions of comparable size and scope, only about one percent of the museum’s collections are on view to the public at any given time. Even though exhibits change and objects rotate periodically, there are many riches visitors don’t usually get to see. The State Museum of Pennsylvania safeguards all sorts of textiles, such as samplers, quilts, and hooked rugs; pewter and silver, such as the opulent sterling silver service used aboard the USS Pennsylvania; political memorabilia and ephemera, such as presidential medals and inaugural medallions; and scientific and technological innovations, most notably the prototype of the robotic equipment used to clean up Three Mile Island following the nation’s worst nuclear accident in 1979.

And what of the future?

Collections have changed and continue to change, from “curiosities” and rare items to everyday objects-such as a vintage Slinky store display and Tupperware. This is a conscious attempt to not only reflect modern culture in all its manifestations, but to also “demystify” the museum and make it more open and accessible to the community, notes museum director Anita D. Blackaby.

“It’s our goal to give our visitors a meaningful experience, to help them appreciate our diverse heritage, and to show them how our society has emerged through the exhibition and interpretation of objects and artifacts,” explains Blacka­by. “Our mission everyday is to enrich and enlighten our visitors, giving them a new understanding of history and culture. The State Museum is a resource that’s available – and accessible – to the broadest possible audience. We are constantly expanding our collections as our horizons broaden.”

The museum’s collections have grown, in recent years, culturally more diverse and topically broader, focusing on social history and the African American and Latino experiences. Children’s programming, such as “aMaze and Beyond,” an interactive exhibit exploring stereotypes and prejudice, in 1999, and a 2001 tribute to PBS chil­dren’s television personality Fred Rogers (1928-2003) reflects the museum’s philosophy that today’s youngsters are tomorrow’s museum-goers and supporters. In 2004, The State Museum opened Curiosity Connection, a kid-inspired world of wonder where young children and grown-ups can discover, learn, and play together. In this permanent exhibition area, visitors will find activities that encourage children ages seven and under to explore, discover, and imagine through the power of play. Recent exhibitions have explored subur­banization, civil rights, race relations, African American photography, and the Latino migrant worker experience in Pennsylvania.

On the eve of its centennial, The State Museum aims to continue evolving, changing, and growing, while remaining comfortably familiar. The mission of the museum – to “collect, preserve, and inter­pret” – will continue. “If we don’t collect things, years or centuries from now there may be nothing to collect,” Sisson says. “We need to collect for posterity.” An accreditation report issued by the American Association of Museums in 1999 declared the museum “one of the nation’s preeminent institutions of its kind.” For the next one hundred years and beyond, The State Museum of Pennsylvania will strive to continue to retain that enviable reputation.

Anita D. Blackaby emphasizes that those entrusted with leading the institution are not content to reflect only the past. They look towards the future and anticipate the ways The State Museum will serve future generations. Wanting to ensure that the museum remains relevant in a world of rapidly changing visitors’ expectations, as well as in a period witnessing increasing competition for consumers’ time and attention, staff members, in concert with consultants, visitors, and experts from throughout North America have joined forces to create a master plan, or “blueprint,” for The State Museum of Pennsylvania. This plan, notes Blackaby, will redefine and lead this beloved institution into the next century.

“Our ultimate goal,” she says, “is to use our vast collections, changing and permanent exhibitions, and public programming to not only learn about the past, but to gain an under­standing of the events that have brought us to where we are today, to help us pinpoint our place in his­tory, and to appreciate the ways we may affect the future. We want our guests to be inspired by what they see and feel here. We want to help enrich their lives by meaningful experiences.”

The State Museum of Pennsylvania observes its one-hundredth birthday and welcomes its second century of service with both substance and style.


For Further Reading

Blackaby, Anita D., et al. An Image of Peace: The Penn Treaty Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Meyer P. Potamkin. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Com­mission, 1996.

Cawley, Lucinda Reddington, Lorraine DeAngelis Ezbiansky, and Denise Rocheleau Nordberg. Saved for the People of Pennsylvania: Quilts from the Collection of The State Museum of Pennsylvania. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1997.

Custer, Jay. Prehistoric Cultures of Eastern Pennsylvania. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1995.

Miller, Randall M., and William Pencak. Pennsylvania: A History of the Commonwealth. University Park, Pa.: and Harrisburg: Penn State Press and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 2002.

Richman, Irwin. Pennsylvania’s Painters. University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania Historical Association, 1983.

Silverman, Sharon Hernes. The State Museum of Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania Trail of History Guide. Mechanicsburg, Pa., and Harrisburg: Stackpole Books and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 2005.

The State Museum of Pennsylvania. The Fine Art of Giving: Gifts of Art to The State Museum of Pennsylvania, 1987-1997. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1998.


Barbara Trainin Blank is a writer and proprietor of Blank Page Writing and Editorial Services, Harrisburg. Her articles have appeared in a number of periodicals, including Harrisburg Magazine, Central PA Magazine, Central Pennsylvania Business Journal, and Hadassah Magazine. She has written newsletters, annual reports, and promotional materials for a number of agencies and organizations throughout central Pennsylvania. She received her bachelor’s degree from Barnard College.