The Philadelphia Museum (“Peale’s Museum”)

Watercolor of the Long Room, 1822

OTHER IMAGES

TIMELINE & QUICK FACTS
  • 1782. Charles Willson Peale opens a portrait gallery of Revolutionary War heroes out of his home in Philadelphia.
  • 1786. The portrait gallery is combined with an institution for the study of natural law and the display of natural history and technological objects. On 18 July Peale’s Museum opens to the public. Admission is 25 cents.
  • 1794. Peale retires from portrait painting — partly because his revolutionary activities had ostracized Philadelphia's upper classes and made it difficult for him to acquire patrons, but especially to focus on his museum.
  • 1794. The museum moves from Peale’s home to Philosophical Hall, rented from the American Philosophical Society.
  • 1802. Running out of space, the museum moves to the top floors of the Pennsylvania State House (now Independence Hall) until 1827.
  • 1816. Financially this is the museum’s best year with nearly $12,000 in revenue.
  • 1820. The museum contains over 100,000 objects — including 269 paintings, 1,824 birds, 250 quadrupeds, 650 fishes, over 1,000 shells, and 313 books. Unlike European museums which display specimens against a plain white background, Peale invents the diorama, giving the displayed animals a more naturalistic three-dimensional setting against painted backgrounds.
  • 1827. The Philadelphia Museum moves from the State House to the Arcade Building, Philadelphia's new mercantile center and the first shopping mall.
  • 1838. The museum moves again, this time to a building erected just for the museum. It includes a stage that accommodates both lectures and musical performances.
  • 1849. Falling on hard times due to changing tastes and poor management, Edmund Peale, C.W. Peale’s grandson, sells the collection — except for most of the paintings — to P.T. Barnum.
  • Aftermath. The Peale collection is divided and then largely destroyed by fires in 1851 and 1865. Eventually, a number of specimens end up at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology and the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, where some have been identified and can be viewed today.
ESTIMATED ATTENDANCE
  • 1800: 11,620 @ 25 cents each
  • 1805: 16,862 @ 25 cents each
  • 1810: 32,520 @ 25 cents each
  • 1815: 39,620 @ 25 cents each
  • 1816: 47,696 @ 25 cents each
LINKS
FURTHER READING

ARTICLE IN PROGRESS ...

Spin-Off Museums by Peale’s Sons

Peale retired to his farm, Belfield, from 1810 to 1820. During that time he entrusted management of the museum to his son Rubens. Meanwhile, Peale’s older son, Rembrandt, founded the Baltimore Museum in 1814. And when Peale again took charge of the Philadelphia Museum in1821, Rubens join Rembrandt in Baltimore.

This was short-lived. By the mid-1820s due to financial and management issues, the brothers divested themselves of their share in the museum. Rembrandt returned to art; Rubens founded a third Peale museum — in New York City’s Parthenon Building in 1825.

For all their artistic and philosophical brilliance, the Greeks were failures at politics; Hamilton, in the Federalist, expressed horror and disgust at the distractions with which they were agitated. The Romans captured the American imagination because they had done what the Americans themselves hoped to do — sustain an extensive republic over a course of centuries. So the society of Revolutionary War officers called themselves Cincinnati; president, congress, and senate were all Roman terms. But the Roman example was also cautionary, for when they lost their virture, they slid into empire. When Franklin said, in response to a question from Eliza Powel, that the constitutional convention had produced a republic, if you can keep it, he and she would have remembered that the Romans had failed to keep theirs.

Richard Brookhiser
Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington (1996)