Philadelphia Museum Shaped Early American Culture Museums were a source of education and entertainment in early America. Philadelphia artist and naturalist Charles Willson Peale helped shape American culture by establishing what was the country's first public museum of art and science.

Philadelphia Museum Shaped Early American Culture

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen. All this month we're asking the question, who is an American? The city of Philadelphia where the colonists declared independence is a good place to find answers. And the answers differ from century to century. Our series began last Sunday when reporter Joel Rose told us about the city in 1708 and the Quakers.

JOEL ROSE: As of 1708, Quakers were easily the largest group in Philadelphia.

Unidentified Man: Philadelphia next.

HANSEN: We recently took a train up to Pennsylvania to learn about the Philadelphia of 1808, and to hear the story of a 19th century visionary, Charles Wilson Peale. Born in 1741 on the eastern shore of Maryland, Peale applied the democratic ideals of the new nation to culture. He studied painting with Benjamin West in London and eventually settled in the City of Brotherly Love.

(Soundbite of traffic)

HANSEN: I'm standing at the corner of 3rd and Lombard Streets in Philadelphia. It's a very busy intersection. On the corner you can see new condos. There's a school for boys and girls across the street. But this site used to be the home of Charles Peale.

Charles Peale is probably best known for his portraits of some of the patriots of the revolution. But you may not know that he is essentially responsible for the museum system we have in the United States. He began to collect artifacts and displayed them in his home here at 3rd and Lombard. He eventually moved to a bigger site. And to find out more about it, we'll have to go to an institution that he helped to found, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

Dr. DAVID BRIGHAM (Museum Director, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts): I'm David Brigham, the Edna S. Tuttleman museum director at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia.

HANSEN: When we met Brigham at the Academy, he escorted us to a gallery upstairs full of Peale's portraits to tell us more about the man.

Dr. BRIGHAM: He was a soldier in the American Revolution, and in fact managed to meet all of the major generals, including Washington. He painted their portraits. Set up a painting room here in Philadelphia. In 1786, someone brought to him a bone from Kentucky of a mastodon, and Peale was fascinated by it and put it on display in his painting room and found that it was a greater attraction than all of the paintings. So, being a curious person and someone who was brought up in the enlightenment tradition, established what became the most important and really the first public museum of art and science in America.

HANSEN: David Brigham also says that Peale wanted his museum to be a national university, that it should be available to the learned and the unwise.

Dr. BRIGHAM: This was not going to be an aristocratic nation, and the education would not be reserved for the few. There was a great deal of discussion in the early Republic about how we would sustain this new nation that we had created, not only political freedom but economic freedom. And Peale felt that by understanding nature, by promoting new inventions, that he could encourage that economic independence.

HANSEN: There's a painting of Peale's we wanted to see across town on the second floor of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. So we met up with Curator Carol Soltis, an expert on Peale. She walked us over to a portrait of his two sons, Raphaelle and Titian Ramsay Peale I. It's called "The Staircase Group."

Carol, are you taking us to the Peales?

Ms. CAROL SOLTIS (Curator, Philadelphia Museum of Art): Yes.

HANSEN: Great. It looks like Peale is having some fun with us here, with this installation. Because as I walk up to it, it does look like a doorway, and there is a step.

Ms. SOLTIS: Yes.

HANSEN: But then, the painting begins, but it's like that trompe d'oeil feeling where you're...

Ms. SOLTIS: Exactly.

HANSEN: It's not - it's one dimensional, but it looks two, three dimensional.

Ms. SOLTIS: This is another picture that I think is so multilayered, because you had it as a kind of advertisement for the museum. You see Raphaelle representing art, striding up the staircase, and you see Titian Ramsay Peale I pointing upward. The whole idea of nature and up to nature is God, so a very common thing that you see in old master paintings.

HANSEN: Soltis says Peale was a deist. His museum of natural specimens and manmade objects was to represent God's work, and Peale wanted to educate people about how to continue and nurture that work. He kept the museum open in the evening so working people could see the displays and attend lectures. Anyone was welcome, anyone who could afford the 25 cent admission that is. David Brigham says that in many respects Peale drafted the blueprint for the way museums are run today.

Dr. BRIGHAM: Not only did he create the first museum, but he created the first marketing campaigns, the first solicitations for gifts to his museum. He had certificates that donors received that said "Of grains of sand are mountains made." So the idea that - was that this was collective, that this was not only Peale's museum, it was the community's museum, it was the nation's museum, and he really believed that.

HANSEN: Again, Carol Soltis.

Ms. SOLTIS: For Peale, it was about educating, enlightening, and entertaining. He had to please the public to some degree, because he got his money mostly from admissions. So you had to do things like have moving pictures, which he painted these moving pictures with lights behind them, and that was fun. He brought in professors to lecture on different topics. And he had new ethnographic finds.

He - ultimately, the museum became the repository for the expeditions out west for Lewis and Clark and those coming after. And Jefferson would just sort of send him stuff, you know. It was like it was a place to go with it. You know, there was no Smithsonian, so you send it to Peale.

HANSEN: After Charles Wilson Peale's death at the age of 85 in 1827, the museum was left to his sons. But they were not as successful as their father, and by the 1840s the Peale Museum had closed. Most of the artifacts were sold. In fact, one of the buyers was the ultimate showman, P.T. Barnum. But according to David Brigham, many of Charles Wilson Peale's 19th century ideas are still fresh today.

Dr. BRIGHAM: He wanted culture not to be difficult and somehow painful, but fun and uplifting and entertaining. And I think that is something that has consistently come down to us into the 21st century. It was described in the 20th century as middlebrow culture. And you know, we have a highbrow, lowbrow division, but there is an awfully big middlebrow. And I think Peale was an advocate of that middlebrow, PBS, The History Channel, things like that that you can be educated and learn in a fun way.

HANSEN: David Brigham is the Edna S. Tuttleman museum director at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. He also wrote the book, "Public Culture in the Early Republic: Peale's Museum and its Audience." Our thanks also to Carol Soltis from the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.