“With respect and humility…..’: the contrition and commitment of the Philadelphia Art Museum upon her renovation

The ceremonial and civic front of the Philadelphia Art Museum faces the city.



Photo from the net 




Protesters facing the museum after the murder of George Floyd, May 25, 2020.  East front of the museum




The Museum was built in 1928 under the aegis and with funds from the economic elite of the Philadelphia area.


They, the city and the state and Federal funding have maintained the museum since.


The museum sits on a bluff over the Schuylkill River and is at the eastern end of Fairmount Park, a natural park stretching for miles along that river.



The west (rear) of  the Philadelphia Art Museum overlooks the Schuylkill River on a bluff. Photo from the net.



The customary entrance to the museum  has been at her west, river end.




Taking the stairway either right or left takes you up to the great hall of the traditional museum: two levels of galleries.


The great hall looks east to City Hall and the center of the city:





At its west end, Diana is hunting (1892-93, gilded copper sheets;

Augustus Saint-Gaudens, American born Ireland, 1848-1907).





Here are two levels of galleries on either side holding the museum’s mature collections and special exhibition space.








Renovations designed by Frank Gehry (Candadian-American born 1929) have been installed below the museum’s two traditional floors. 

Very little of the museum’s exterior has been touched.

Planned for twenty years and executed, as a first phase, in four, the renovation has added 90,000 square feet of space for a collection much of which has been in storage for ever.



The architect used a freight entrance on the north side of the building to transform  the heart-guts of the museum.


Photo from the net



You enter a new reception area.  This leads to a shop on the right and a long, double corridor on the left




Photo from the net



The double corridor, one of wider width than the other, traverses the museum’s north-south axis.



Two Box Structure, 1961, stainless steel. 

David Smith, 1906-1965, American.  Philadelphia Art Museum




Guastavino tilework lines the vaulted ceiling of the wider corridor


The narrower of the two corridors has access to real light through a metal trellis mimicking the vaulting.







The ubiqitous food in one part of the narrower of the two corridors





The renovation has used the same Kasota limestone – pale gold, red and grey hues – from the same quarries in a small town in southern Minnesota with which the original building was built

Care has been taken to match stone blocks so that our eyes don’t bounce around in the soft and shifting gold haze.







In the guts of the building, the double corridor has been dissected by a new meeting place and performance area:


the Williams Forum.  This replaces an auditorium of the 1970s.




Fire (United States of the Americas), 2017/2020, charcoal. 

Teresita Fernandez, American born 1968. Promised gift to the Philadelphia Art Museum.

The charcoal represents scorched earth here.





From the Williams Forum, steps lead up to the old West entrance which was our habitual entrance.






The double corridor continues south from the Williams Forum to the south entrance.


At its terminus is vestibule space for large sculpture.




Malcolm X #3, 1969, polished bronze, rayon cotton. 

Barbara Chase Riboud, American born 1939. Philadelphia Art Museum





Nuria, 2017, stainless steel. 

Jaume Plensa, Spanish born 1955.  Philadelphia Art Museum


Nur is light in Arabic.

Nur/Nuri in Amharic means ‘be’ or ‘live’ and similar words may represent the same meaning in other Semitic languages.

Núria  is a valley in Catalonia, Spain.



Splotch, 2003, fiberglass, construction foam, plywood epoxy resin, acrylic paint. 

Sol Lewitt, 1928-2007, American.  Philadelphia Museum of Art



In this vestibule, you are at ground level with natural light pouring through the south entrance door.





From the Williams Forum upwards to the old west entrance.




the old West entrance to the museum



Right and left on this floor are hung two new galleries.




We are at ground level and below the traditional galleries.



New galleries run on a north-south axis above and on either side of the Williams Forum. 


From the Williams Forum to the old West entrance at the top



Looking down from the area of the new galleries into the Williams Forum




Galleries dedicated to contemporary art on the north side are exhibiting an inaugural collection of the work of artists who are native Philadelphians or who have worked or are working in the city.




Entrance to the new galleries for contemporary art


Walls of Change, 2021, acrylic latex paint on wall. 

Designed by Odili Donald Odita, American born 1966 Nigeria.  Philadelphia Art Museum






And on the south, American galleries:






And at its entrance, an exceptional statement posted by the museum.




Portrait of Lord Lapowinsa, oil on canvas.

  Gusavus Hessellus, American born Sweden, 1689-1755. Photo from the net






These are portraits of two men, known as Lenape leaders.


They met with the sons of William Penn in 1735 to resolve a land dispute.  They were painted at that time.

Two years later they and their people were deceived out of agreements made. 

The fate of the Lenni Lenape in south-east Pennsylvania resulted from crimes committed against them: notably the expropriation of their lands and their removal from their ancestral home.


Most were placed in concentration camps and deported west.


First to the Ohio River Valley, then to Indiana, then to Missouri, then to Kansas.


In 1867 many were finally moved to lands assigned to the Cherokee territory which became Oklahoma without the say-so of the Cherokee.




Portrait of Tishcohan, c. 1735-37, oil on canvas.

  Gusavus Hessellus, American born Sweden, 1689-1755




The museum’s contrition and regret has been long in the making;

not least


as a result of the historic violation by William Penn’s own sons of his governing law for the city of Philadelphia (1682) and the state of Pennsylvania (1682-84):


the Quaker principle and plan of action known as the Holy Experiment;


the long redress sought by American Indians;


the world-wide emotional shock of an example of the workings of a second original, continuing, sin of the North American state in the murder of George Floyd in May 2020;


and a clear statement of recognition in 2021 by the US  Supreme Court


that a significant portion of the state of Oklahoma is sovreign Indian land, given as a consequence of the ethnic cleansing of the Cherokee from south-eastern United States.


(On May 11, 2021, the Metropolitan Museum of Art also affixed a bronze plaque recognizing that it sits in lands which belonged to the Lenape diaspora.





You enter the American galleries to be greeted by works discussing a part of the European legacy of South America,


slavery in North America


and the history of art and artifacts in North America.



The Archangel Michael, made in Peru, is there.  He is  killing one of the many dragons which beset us.




Saint Michael the Archangel, 1700s, oil on canvas.  Peru (Cuzco)




Onwards, then, with the evolution of one of Pennsylvania’s most important institutions


and one of the nation’s primary collectors and interpretors of its history through the media of art and artisanal work.


Setter of example and giver of hope to the young.














8 thoughts on ““With respect and humility…..’: the contrition and commitment of the Philadelphia Art Museum upon her renovation

  1. C’est vraiment une belle rénovation.
    Le texte d’explication va, peut-être, aider les américains à “avaler” enfin le crime originel de la formation des Etats Unis.
    Israël devrait faire la même chose.

    1. Est-ce qu’on peut avaler le genocide? Je pense que non. Mais demander pardon c’est necessaire comme la France dans Ruanda? Sarah

      1. La France peut toujours s’excuser, ce sont des figures diplomatiques.
        Les français n’habitent pas le Ruanda.

  2. This is such an inspired presentation of that wonderful museum. Its scale is so much more human and humane than the mammoth New York Met; its setting is breath-taking and, its compass of collected art is a miracle of discerning choice. Alongside the now nearby Barnes collection, this should museum make Philadelphia the city of choice for any lover of art to visit. Your photographs with commentary should be bought and used by the museum for publicity and fundraising! Thank you for your fine collection.

    1. Thank you, Susannah, for your generous commentary.

      I think we are all surprised by the imagination of this renovation and its expert installation. I agree that the Met is overwhelming. But so is New York!

      That the Met’s statement was not contrite but matter-of-fact takes us back to the different founding philosophies of these two cities: NY a trading metropolis which she remains. Philadelphia, a hoped for example of ‘brotherly’ love in action!


  3. The photos of the new additions and entries to the Art Museum not only help me envision the Gehry changes but also reassure me that those changes are so compatible. I was brought up in Philadelphia and always looked to the Museum for exciting sights from the first time my grandmother took me there ,,circa 1930’s and ’40’s. Now living a continent away and probably not going to see it again, I can continue to be proud of Philadelphia’s faithful care of this grand building. the treasures it holds and the histories it honors.

  4. Thank you for your comment!

    This is a masterwork of Frank Gehry who has nothing more to prove in the world and has subordinated himself to the character of this magnificent building instead of imposing himself on it.

    I am with you. It is our hope that the museum continue to reflect the struggles and accomplishments of the city and the nation and also the world.

    Best wishes to you wherever you are!

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