Preserving the Past, Protecting the Future: The State Museum of Pennsylvania

By Sharon Hernes Silverman
This article originally appeared in Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine
Volume XXVI, Number 1 - Winter 2000

Pennsylvania State Archives and Museum, Photo Courtesy of the PHMC Part of a museum's mission is to collect, safeguard, exhibit, and interpret relevant objects and artifacts, and The State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg fulfills this goal with singular distinction. Since 1905, the institution has preserved vast collections that chronicle the Commonwealth's history and natural heritage from earth's beginning to the present (see "Preserving Pieces of Pennsylvania's Past: An Inside Look at the Building of the Commonwealth's Collections" by Cathryn J. McElroy, Summer 1984). Today, four floors of exhibits and activities bring this saga to life for visitors. Archaeology and anthropology, native peoples, the legacy of founder William Penn, the Civil War, industry and technology, and so on are examined and interpreted for museum visitors.

An accreditation report issued by the prestigious American Association of Museums (AAM) in 1999 recognized the State Museum as "one of the nation's preeminent institutions of its kind…virtually every area the museum is in full compliance with and exceeds the current standards and practices in the museum profession." With only nine hundred of the country's twelve thousand museums qualifying for AAM accreditation, The State Museum of Pennsylvania is among the elite. Rather than rest on its laurels, The State Museum is challenging itself to go beyond its traditional role, to look at itself not only as a steward of the past but as an advocate for Pennsylvania's people and, ultimately, its future.

"In surveys, people like the museum's Mammal Hall the best," says [former] museum director Anita Blackaby. The perennial favorite, a gallery of thirteen dioramas showcasing the fauna and flora of Pennsylvania, is a significant part of the museum's history and many people's memory. "Ours are in terrific shape," comments Blackaby, taking warranted pride in the vivid, well-lit displays. "About five years ago we undertook a major restoration." Large windows extend almost to the floor, making the animals visible to even the tiniest tot. Careful research ensures that the habitats are as true-to-life as possible. Clever techniques—such as the use of varnish to make water appear wet—add to the authenticity.

Just around the corner from Mammal Hall, Dinolab treats visitors to an insider's look at how museum paleontologists work. This exhibit station intrigues visitors because it is actually a working laboratory in a gallery setting. While a technician painstakingly works to reveal dinosaur bones in sedimentary rock found in New Mexico and received from Pittsburgh 's Carnegie Museum of Natural History, visitors can observe and ask questions. The slab is full of well articulated dinosaur bones of Coelophysis (pronounced see-lo-FY-sis). A camera zooms in on the technician's hands, showing how dental-type tools are used to gently excavate the skeletons. In 1999, the museum unveiled a new Coelophysis diorama, an exquisitely designed display that is a significant long-term addition to the museum's offerings.

In the area of fine arts, The State Museum of Pennsylvania Still Life With Tunisian Vase by Jane Piper, Coutesy of The State Museum of Pennsylvania has partnered with the greater Harrisburg Arts Council for thirty-four years to produce Art of the State, a statewide juried competition for established and emerging artists. In 1999, artists submitted more than eleven hundred entries in several categories, works on paper, painting, sculpture, crafts, and photography, from which jurors selected one hundred and thirty-two items for inclusion in the prestigious show. The museum most recently purchased James Gwynne's large oil painting, Landscape with Chair, for its permanent collection. The museum's permanent collection, selections of which are shown periodically, includes works by a number of Pennsylvania artists. In a ten-year period alone, from 1987 to 1997, the museum acquired important pieces by Edward Hicks (1780–1849), Walter Emerson Baum (1904–1954), Maya Schock (1928–1975), Harry Bertoia (1915–1978), Ned Smith (1919–1985), Jane Piper (1916–1991), Julius Bloch (1888–1966), Jack Savitsky (1910–1991), Violet Oakley (1874–1961), Charles Rudy (1904–1986), George Papashvily (1898–1978), Edith Neff (1943–1995), and Emlen Etting (1905–1993).

Memorial Hall and Statue of William Penn, Photo Courtesy of the PHMC The legacy of William Penn looms large at The State Museum of Pennsylvania—and so does the massive statue of him that dominates its vaulted Memorial Hall. Created by Pittsburgh sculptor Janet DeCoux for the building's opening in 1965, the eighteen-foot-high bronze of the Commonwealth's founder, weighing in at more than thirty-eight hundred pounds, depicts a thoughtful, dignified, youthful countenance. A reproduction of the Charter for Pennsylvania granted by England 's King Charles II to Penn, as well as a selection of documents basic to the foundation of the Commonwealth, are encased here (see "This Venerable Document" by Linda A. Ries and Jane Smith Stewart). Memorial Hall features an immense mural depicting momentous events and important individuals by Vincent Maragliotti, who also created murals for the State Capitol.

A "must-see" is the monumental painting of one of the most fierce battles in world history, The Battle of Gettysburg: Pickett's Charge, by Pennsylvania native Peter Frederick Rothermel (1812/1817–1895). This huge work of art—measuring thirty-two feet long by more than sixteen feet high!—serves as a dramatic backdrop for the museum's Civil War Gallery. Rothermel, who created his masterpiece by synthesizing the collective memory of the many veterans he interviewed, grimly depicts courage in the face of horror and chaos that is still capable of evoking deep emotions well more than a century after its completion (see "Painting for Peer, Patron, and the Public" by Kent Ahrens, Pennsylvania Heritage, spring 1992). The Civil War Gallery also includes an array of objects and artifacts that recount the role of Pennsylvanians in the war, including military uniforms and accoutrements, medals, badges, canteens, guidons, drums, cartridges and shells, a cannon, small arms, swords, and paintings. One of the presentation swords on view was manufactured by Tiffany & Co., the New York jewelry firm catering to the country's carriage trade. Colors (or flags) of several units are on exhibit, including those carried by the Ringgold Light Artillery of Reading, the Logan Guards of Lewistown, and the Second Infantry Regiment of U.S. Colored Troops.

The museum's popular attractions include a planetarium with changing shows; a full-size Native American village; cobblestone streets of a re-created nineteenth-century village; and period rooms that interpret life in eighteenth-and nineteenth-century Pennsylvania.

Nearly three hundred thousand museum visitors each year enjoy many special events and activities, including Archaeology Month, Heritage Week, fall and spring educational programs, and summer workshops. The Distance Learning Center takes the museum to classrooms across the state. The State Museum of Pennsylvania conducts archaeological excavations at Ephrata Cloister in Lancaster County and, with the Bureau for Historic Preservation, on Harrisburg 's City Island in the Susquehanna River.

Exciting additions to the museum's permanent exhibits are being planned. They will be the Pennsylvania History Galleries, beginning with Pennsylvanians at Work, followed by Pennsylvanians at Play, and then by Pennsylvanians and the Land. They will showcase the life of the people of the Commonwealth. Although the exhibits are primarily object-driven, there will be many hands-on activities for people to learn from and enjoy.

The State Museum of Pennsylvania is open Tuesday through Saturday, 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and Sunday, noon to 5:00 p.m. The museum is closed Mondays and holidays. Admission is free, but there is a charge for the Curiosity Connection and planetarium shows. Persons with disabilities who need special assistance or accommodation should telephone (717) 787-4979 or write the museum in advance of their visit to discuss their needs. Persons who are deaf, hard of hearing, or speech impaired who wish to contact a hearing person via Text Telephone may use the PA Relay Center at 1-800-654-5984. For more information, write: The State Museum of Pennsylvania, 300 North Street, Harrisburg, PA 17108-1026; telephone (717) 787-4980; e-mail museum@; or visit its Web site at

Pennsylvania German Fraktur, Courtesy of the State Museum of Pennsylvania In addition to The State Museum, Harrisburg, the Dauphin County seat and state capital, is home to a number of popular visitor attractions. Located adjacent to the museum, and also administered by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, the Pennsylvania State Archives welcomes researchers—historians, college and university students and teachers, scholars, genealogists—from throughout the world to examine millions of government records, military documents, photographs, maps, diaries, court dockets, naturalization papers, aerial surveys, farm census returns, canal and railroad company papers, ship passenger lists, Native American deeds, and papers of prominent Pennsylvanians and their families. The State Capitol, just south of the museum and archives complex, is one of the most opulent in the nation (see "A Capital Idea! A Brief and Bumpy History of Pennsylvania 's Capitols" by Suzanne McInerney, Pennsylvania Heritage, Winter 1994). Designated a "Commonwealth Treasure" by the PHMC, the State Capitol is truly a treasure house, with murals by Edward Austin Abbey and Violet Oakley (see "Violet Oakley, Lady Mural Painter" by Patricia Likos, Pennsylvania Heritage, Fall 1988); sculpture by George Grey Barnard and Roland Hinton Perry; decorative tiles by Henry Chapman Mercer; and stained glass windows by William Van Ingen.

The Historical Society of Dauphin County, established in 1869, is headquartered in the stately John Harris-Simon Cameron Mansion overlooking the Susquehanna River. The society administers an archives, library, and museum. Five miles north of center-city, Fort Hunter Mansion and Park, located on the banks of the Susquehanna, is a thirty-five-acre complex whose centerpiece is a stone Federal-style house built in 1814 by Archibald McAllister, an officer who served directly under George Washington during the Revolutionary War. The mansion is furnished with pieces reflecting the Empire and Victorian periods.

Dauphin County has something for just about everyone. The Fire Museum of Greater Harrisburg, housed in the former Reily Fire Station, in service from 1899 until 1980, features an extensive collection of firefighting memorabilia and equipment. Art lovers will enjoy changing exhibits mounted by the Susquehanna Art Museum, the Doshi Center for Contemporary Art, and the Art Association of Harrisburg.

Whitaker Center for Science and the Arts, a recent addition to Harrisburg 's cultural community, offers scientific, artistic, cultural, and educational activities.

The city's National Civil War Museum in Reservoir Park, showcases a preeminent collection of objects and artifacts of national significance. The museum boasts nearly thirty thousand square feet of exhibition galleries.

Hershey, known as the "chocolate capital," is home to the Hershey Museum, which chronicles the life and career of candymaker Milton S. Hershey, and exhibits a diverse selection of Native American objects and artifacts, Pennsylvania German furnishings and works of art, and items and ephemera documenting the history of the community. The Middletown Area Historical Society administers the Ferry House and the Liberty Band Hall. The Hummelstown Area Historical Society manages the 1815 Parish House, formerly a Lutheran church. In the Dauphin County 's northern reaches, the Gratz Historical Society, the Halifax Area Historical Society, and the Historical Society of Millersburg/Upper Paxton Township document and interpret local history. Throughout the county, a number of community historical societies and historic preservation associations regularly conduct public programs for residents and visitors.

For more information about these and other attractions, write: Hershey Capital Region Visitors Bureau, 112 Market Street, 4th Floor, Harrisburg, PA 17101; telephone toll-free 877 PA PULSE; or visit its web site at

Sharon Hernes Silverman of West Chester, Chester County, is the author of four books, including Going Underground: Your Guide to Caves in the Mid-Atlantic. She writes frequently for Pennsylvania Heritage. Her most recent feature, "The Boat Ride That Changed America: Washington Crossing Historic Park," appeared in the Fall 1999 edition.

For Further Reading

Alexander, Edward P. Museums in Motion. Nashville: American Association for State and Local History, 1979.

Bazin, Germain. The Museum Age. New York: Universe Books, 1967.

Bell, Whitfield J. Jr., et al. A Cabinet of Curiosities: Five Episodes in the Evolution of American Museums. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1967.

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

Randall, Kesler A., Robert M. Sullivan and Spencer G. Lucas. Natural History Notes of the State Museum of Pennsylvania: "Dunkleosteus: Devonian Denizen of the Deep." Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1996.

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

Sullivan, Robert M., and Spencer G. Lucas. Natural History Notes of The State Museum of Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania's Dinosaurs and Other Triassic Reptiles. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1999.

Warfel, Steven G. Historical Archaeology at Ephrata Cloister. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997.