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Our Story

Open to all, the Museum is home to remarkable objects and powerful stories that emerge from its extraordinary expeditions across the world.

At the Penn Museum, make powerful connections between ways of life past and present, near and far. Discover the cultures of Africa, Asia, the Americas, and the Mediterranean, from the very first cities of the Middle East to the kings of ancient Egypt; from prehistoric Mexico to the lives of Native American communities today.

The Museum is a place for everyone to explore who we are and where we came from. Whether in our galleries or through our online Digital Penn Museum, experience the mystery of the ancient past, gain an understanding of our shared humanity, and find your own place in the arc of human history.

Building and Gardens

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.

group of penn museum staff posing together
Executive Vice President Craig Carnaroli, Provost Wendell Pritchett, Museum Board Chair Mike Kowalski, President Amy Gutmann, Williams Director Julian Siggers, Board of Trustees Chair David Cohen, and architect Richard Gluckman of Gluckman Tang at the Building Transformation groundbreaking, November 2017.

2017

The Museum breaks ground on its Building Transformation project, which will renovate and reinstall over 44,000 square feet of space, restore original features of the building, and add important visitor amenities.

the warden garden
The reinstalled Warden Garden and reflecting pool.

2005

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.

fountain and outside of the mainwaring wing
The Mainwaring Wing (left) seen from the Stoner Courtyard.

2002

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.

an empty walkway and coutyard
A pedestrian walkway and courtyard connecting the new Academic Wing to the existing wings of the Museum (PM image 174873).

1971

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 cafe', and underground passages to the earlier wings.

outside of the penn museum in 1929
The Administrative Wing shortly after its opening (PM image 140753).

1929

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.

people gathered around the sphinx
The lower gallery of the Coxe (Egyptian) Wing in 1926 (PM image 174874).

1924

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.

students seated in a lecture hall
Classes from local elementary schools for a Wednesday afternoon lecture in Harrison Auditorium, 1915 (PM image 238715).

1915

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.

a group of women looking at objects in a display case
Visitors to the Museum’s American Section, around 1912 (PM image 10991).

1913

The Free Museum of Science and Art is renamed the University Museum.

outside of the penn museum in 1899
View of the Free Museum of Science and Art from the current site of Franklin Field.

1899

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.

an old blueprint for the museum
The 1896 master plan by Wilson Eyre, Cope and Stewardson, and Frank Miles Day.

1896

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.

objects on display
A display of Egyptian and Mediterranean objects in the Furness Building, 1898 (PM image 148672).

1890

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.

university of Pennsylvania buildings
The Museum’s first two homes, in College Hall (right) and the Furness Building (left) (PM image 148670).

1889

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.

beginning of handwritten letter
The founding document of the Penn Museum: letter dated December 30, 1887, from the Board of the Trustees to Reverend John P. Peters, who would lead Penn’s first expedition to Nippur in 1888, informing him of the Board’s pledge to “provide accommodations for the collections made by the expedition” (PM image 234223).

1887

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.