Hands-On History features stories that focus on history in practice at museums and historic sites throughout Pennsylvania.
The State Museum of Pennsylvania

The William Penn Memorial Museum and Archives Building in the 1960s. Pennsylvania State Archives/RG-13

Established institutions rarely get the opportunity to hit the reset button. But that’s what happened with The State Museum of Pennsylvania in the early 1960s, after the long-anticipated William Penn Memorial Museum and Archives Building cleared its last bureaucratic hurdle. Ground was broken north of the State Capitol in Harrisburg, Dauphin County, in January 1962, and by summer Pennsylvania’s new “home for history” was well on its way.

Staff and collections would not have far to move. The new complex, which featured two unequivocally modern structures – one for a museum and one for an archives – was adjacent to the State Capitol on the opposite side from the museum’s previous quarters in what is now the Matthew J. Ryan Building.

The old State Museum had been plagued by cramped spaces and dimly lit galleries, but the new William Penn Memorial Museum was bright, open and boundless. The architects from Lawrie & Green designated three and a half floors of the five-story building for public galleries – a whopping 105,000 square feet of exhibition space. Even with an array of disciplines competing for attention – from natural history and archeology to history and fine art – the allocation was more than ample. Still, for all the opportunities the new building provided, curating the galleries presented a host of challenges for the professional staff charged with that responsibility. Completion schedules were tight, and there was much to be assembled in a very short period of time.

Kinsey was state archeologist before he was appointed chief curator of the museum in 1960. RG-13/ PA State Archives

Kinsey was state archeologist before he was appointed chief curator of the museum in 1960. Pennsylvania State Archives/RG-13

Former curators W. Fred Kinsey and Irwin Richman played key roles in the museum’s metamorphosis during that period. Both men joined PHMC at early stages in their long and productive careers in museums and higher education. Kinsey, born and raised in York County, was hired in 1955 and served as state archeologist before being promoted to chief curator in 1960. For the next three years, he was involved in nearly every aspect of development for the new museum, from space reviews to interpretive planning for the new galleries.

Richman, a native New Yorker, joined PHMC in 1961 as an assistant historian. Two years later he transferred to the Bureau of Museums to assist with planning the new facility, picking up in part where Kinsey left off. Richman was also responsible for developing the museum’s technology and industrial history collections and curating its first history-themed exhibitions.

One of the most distinctive features of the William Penn Memorial Building, aside from its prominent location across from the State Capitol, is its design. What did the professional staff at the time think about the look and feel of the new building?

Kinsey: [PHMC Executive Director] Dr. S.K. Stevens desperately wanted a new facility, and I think he was willing to make any kind of compromise or sacrifice to get a modern building. At one time, I suggested we consider finding a plot outside of town where we could have some green space and that was greeted with horror. Dr. Stevens didn’t want to have anything to upset the apple cart. I never liked the idea of a round building. I think the architects were making the statement that this is my project. There’s no other round building in Harrisburg. I think they just wanted to do something like the Opera House in Sydney [Australia]. I think architects do that. I don’t think [Stevens] cared. [Architect Bill] Green got to him first and said, “We’ll do a round building.”

Richman: I think [the Modernist design] was all in fashion. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum, which was round, had just opened. [But] the staff right from the beginning in the design stage hated the way the galleries were laid out. Nobody was happy with the fact that it had curved walls. And right from the start, a lot of people were terribly unhappy with the lighting. By the time I left virtually none of the galleries were using the ceiling lights. The disconnect of course was you know the way in which the state builds things; it’s the GSA [General State Authority] that’s the client and they asked for input, but they weren’t at that point required to take the input. I would say that [Stevens] probably didn’t think it was worth the political capital to fight it.

Irwin Richman, far right, and PHMC Executive Director S.K. Stevens speak with Frank Masland, left, a Cumberland County businessman and collector who donated several historic carriages from his personal collection for display in the museum’s Transportation Gallery.RG-13/ PA State Archives

Irwin Richman, far right, and PHMC Executive Director S.K. Stevens speak with Frank Masland, left, a Cumberland County businessman and collector who donated several historic carriages from his personal collection for display in the museum’s Transportation Gallery. Pennsylvania State Archives/RG-13

Several now-iconic museum features – the William Penn statue in Memorial Hall, the Vision of William Penn mural on Floor Two – were commissioned specifically for the new building. These were intended both to underscore the museum’s memorial function and to make a broader statement about Penn’s legacy. Your thoughts at the time?

Kinsey: Janet de Coux’s statue of William Penn was very modern. You wouldn’t know it was Penn if it didn’t have a label on it. I’m going to say that I didn’t care much for it, but I probably went along to get along with that one. We went to [her studio in] Gibsonia [Allegheny County] several times to review it. She was thin like the statue.

Richman: I don’t think there was any big [public criticism] about it. The most you heard were people who laughed about that mankind figure [on William Penn’s chest]; it looked really funny. [Janet de Coux] was principally known for doing stuff for churches, so you have the Sacred Heart of William Penn there.

Richman (on Vincent Maragliotti’s mural The Vision of William Penn): One day I was sent to New York to look it over and Vincent Maragliotti took me out to lunch and fed me extravagantly and got me a lot of drinks. [Nonetheless, despite the artist’s hospitality,] I wrote a fairly critical memo about a number of the features in that [mural]. And I never got asked to go again. There were a lot of things I wasn’t happy about with that. [But] Vincent was very politically connected and he did those things in the Capitol as well. I didn’t realize at the time how much juice he had. It wasn’t just in the commission, it was from a higher order.

Vincent Maragliotti putting final touches on The Vision of William Penn, the sweeping history mural commissioned for the new museum. RG-13/ PA State Archives

Vincent Maragliotti putting final touches on The Vision of William Penn, the sweeping history mural commissioned for the new museum. Pennsylvania State Archives/RG-13

When the museum first opened to the public in 1964, it was virtually empty and it took several years to install the permanent galleries. The first to open was Mammal Hall in 1968. Other galleries opened in succession every few years. The last one, the Hall of Industry and Technology, was not completed until 1978. How did these and other long-term galleries and exhibits come together?

Kinsey (on Mammal Hall): We blocked out a series of dioramas and started planning those and also collecting the mammals that would be necessary. The museum didn’t have a lot of specimens, so I sent out notices to the various game commission offices that we were looking for certain animals and that if they got in any particularly nice specimens they should preserve them and contact us. I got this call about a bear that was at the time one of the largest bears that had ever been killed in Pennsylvania. And so Charlie Strack [a preparator] and I went out to this ice house in Lock Haven . . . and there was this huge bear on the floor in the ice house. [The man there said,] “There’s your bear.” We looked at each other, and we couldn’t budge it. And so he had some kind of a hook and he hooked it, slid it out and slid it on the truck we had there, and [we] brought it back.

In another instance, a York newspaper ran a story about a woman caring for some baby squirrels that had been abandoned when the mother ran off. It was a real heartwarming story because in Pennsylvania people are not permitted to have squirrels or any other wild game animals. So he called me and said, “Hey I have some squirrels for you.” My reaction was, “But they are alive.” The game warden quickly dispatched the squirrels. The next day the newspaper story ran, “They took my babies away.” More headlines followed. And a reporter called me and I started hemming and hawing. I said “Yeah, they’re at the taxidermist.” I tried to rationalize it: “More people are going to see these squirrels when they’re in the exhibit than would have at her house.”

Kinsey, left, and Natural Science Curator Winslow Shaughnessy with two black bear specimens collected for the museum’s Mammal Hall. RG-13/ PA State Archives

Kinsey, left, and Natural Science Curator Winslow Shaughnessy with two black bear specimens collected for the museum’s Mammal Hall. Pennsylvania State Archives/RG-13

Richman (on Transportation Hall): Piper [Aircraft] indicated they were interested in donating a Cub [airplane] and it was given to me to follow through on. One day I got a call from the Piper company asking me if I would come up to Lock Haven to talk about it with them and they’d send a plane for me. I said, “Sure,” so I was picked up by a younger Piper. We flew up to Lock Haven and I met Bill Piper and they agreed to give us the plane. I remember the plane coming into the museum and it being taken up the escalator with the wings off. The wings were too big for the freight elevator. The wings were separated and the body of the plane went up in the freight elevator because they took the tail off.But the wings went up on the escalator!

As that story suggests, the new museum featured objects that were acquired specifically for the new open galleries, along with very important collections from the old museum. Can you speak to this?

Kinsey (on the Peter F. Rothermel painting Battle of Gettysburg: Pickett’s Charge): In the old State Museum, the Rothermel was featured in our main gallery. But the present building doesn’t have high ceilings, at least not in the Civil War gallery. The architects decided that in the frame it was too big, so they said, “Oh, we’ll take it out of the frame and glue it on the wall.” I told Bill Richards [Director of the Bureau of Museums] about it, and he hit the ceiling. “This is a framed painting. You’re not going to make a mural out of it.” We forced them to make a cut out in the ceiling. I’m sure it isn’t displayed as well as it was in the original State Museum, you know, a big wall with the high ceilings, but they had to make this cut out. Maybe at some point I should have said, “We’ve got this painting that measures so many feet by so many feet, you’ve got to make a special place for it.” I know I did not do that, but at least I prevailed with the cut out.

Kinsey (on the Decorative Arts Collection): We wanted to do some period rooms, and we were actively acquiring where we could. [Curator of Decorative Arts] Eric DeJonge had located a pair of 18th-century andirons in Philadelphia – one of the dealers had them – and convinced me that they would be appropriate for an 18th-century period living room. We had to buy antiques the same way you would buy lumber, paper, pencils – so I wrote up a description of the andirons, and there was a maker’s mark on it, and submitted that to General Services, and I got a call back from them, “Couldn’t we buy direct from the manufacturer?” It’s one of the reasons I left Harrisburg and went to a small museum in a college, because it was so frustrating trying to get one-of-a-kind things done.

A sampling of large objects, both old and new, along the curved walls of the museum, circa 1965. RG-13/ PA State Archives

A sampling of large objects, both old and new, along the curved walls of the new State Museum, circa 1965. Pennsylvania State Archives/RG-13

During the early years, while work on the permanent galleries continued, the museum presented a series of changing exhibits. The inaugural exhibition, N.C. Wyeth and the Brandywine Tradition, set a new standard for this. Can you describe that show or any other memorable early exhibits?

Richman: The Wyeth exhibit was open a week after the museum was open, and it was also opened with a formal dinner and the whole shebang. Every one of the Wyeths and Wyeth relatives were there. It was originally intended to be an Andrew Wyeth exhibit, but Andrew Wyeth really wanted it to be an N.C. Wyeth exhibit, and so they directed it towards that goal. [The Wyeths were] Pennsylvania’s most famous artists, and [Andrew] was at the very height of his fame. The exhibit announced that the new museum was to be a presence.

Another early exhibit was on William Penn. I will never forget borrowing one of the chairs that William Penn owned at Pennsbury Manor. I borrowed it from the National Park Service, which at that time used the First Bank of the U.S. building [in Philadelphia] as sort of storage. I walked in around lunch time and said, “I’m here for the Penn chair,” and I walked out with it. A guy came running out and said as I was loading it in the truck, “Hey, you forgot to sign the receipt.” I almost had a good chair.


W. Fred Kinsey left PHMC in 1963 to become director of the North Museum of Natural History & Science in Lancaster and professor in the Anthropology Department at Franklin and Marshall College, from which he retired in 1990.

Irwin Richman moved into academia as well. In 1968 he joined the faculty of Penn State’s newly organized Harrisburg campus. There he taught courses in material culture and decorative arts as part of the American Studies program before retiring in 2003.


Curtis Miner, Ph.D., joined the staff of The State Museum of Pennsylvania in 1994 and is now senior history curator. He writes widely on Pennsylvania social and cultural history. His article “A Home for History: S.K. Stevens and the Campaign for the William Penn Memorial Museum and Archives” appeared in the Spring 2015 edition of Pennsylvania Heritage.