Reading Public Museum, which has been welcoming visitors since 1913, was part of our itinerary on a recent, unseasonably mild, Saturday, and the sense of anticipation mounted as soon as we turned into the parklike grounds surrounding the complex.
Urged by the receptionist to see the Egyptian mummy, we decided to save that attraction and started our exploration in the North American Indian exhibit, which presents and interprets the clothing, domestic life and ceremonial customs of eastern and western tribes and the Inuit of Canada. An array of colorful feathered and beaded bonnets and ceremonial headdresses of the Sioux, Iroquois and Assiniboine were stunning, yet the simpler, beautifully constructed, birch bark containers, pipes and cups from the Montagnais homeland in Quebec and Labrador held our attention, too.
From the tribes of North America, we entered the adjoining Latin American gallery, a stunning collection of religious and cultural artifacts of the Inca and Maya, from a simple gourd from 1,000 AD for holding corn to a highly decorated chocolate pot, breastplates and pectoral discs of hammered sheet gold and, perhaps most disturbingly, an authentic, early 20th-century ceremonial Jivaro shrunken head.
What’s amazing is the exquisite condition of these and countless other exhibited items; they look as if ancient artisans just removed them from a kiln or a forge. Museum founder Levi Mengel clearly had an eye for quality. Unlike some other museums, where objects and display cases crowd galleries and sometimes seem stacked on top of each other, Reading Public Museum offers a relaxed pace to study and ponder the well-paced presentations.
Moving on, we took in the Arms and Armor—dominated by a steel and leather suit of 16th-century German body armor—Pennsylvania and Ancient Civilizations exhibits. Pennsylvania’s Americana Region is noticeably represented in these rooms. Redware, fraktur, tall case clocks, decorated chests and painted tinware fill the Pennsylvania German collection. Many of the pieces on display were made in Berks County.
Taking heed of the advice given at the ticket counter, we gazed upon Nefrina, the museum’s resident mummy who rests among oil flasks, terra-cotta wine jugs and cups, Grecian urns and Etruscan art. Well-educated, she lived comfortably in the ancient Egyptian city of Akhmim in 300 BC, quite possibly surrounded by an herb garden and date trees, according to the information presented beside her sarcophagus.
Her plaster forensic portrait, based on a 2003 CT scan done at Reading Hospital, reveals a pleasant, almost content expression. Berks County’s even deeper ancient past shows up on a shale slab positioned not far from Nefrina. Uncovered in 1996 from a building site in Exeter Township, its surface is dotted with tracks from three- and five-toed dinosaurs. Before we left the ancient world to view European and American still lifes, portraits and religious art, I just had to take a sniff from above the lip of a tall Roman wine jug from 100 BC, to see if there might be a lingering bouquet.
Once again, Berks County showed up with the “Keith Haring: Symbolic Gestures” exhibit. This year marks the 40th anniversary of Haring’s first solo exhibition held at the Pittsburgh Arts and Craft Center in 1978. The Reading Public Museum, where the Kutztown-raised, internationally known artist first exhibited his work in 1976, is presenting paintings, prints and, sculpture from all phases of his career. The exhibit runs until April 15.
Another new feature, “After the Dinosaurs: Ice Age Mammals,” will explore how herbivores and carnivores, including early humans, survived during the Cenozoic era. It opened February 3rd and runs until May 6. The visit ended, appropriately, with a sign directing visitors to the gift shop, which features decorative and folk ware items from area artisans.
Before we left, we took a stroll through the arboretum, 25 acres of trees, plants, pathways, wildlife, benches and picnic tables along the Wyomissing Creek. I’m sure it’s more stunning in the full blossom of spring, but the walk was still enjoyable and a nice way to cap off an afternoon at the museum.
A bonus to the trip was West Reading, about a five-minute drive away from Reading Public Museum. We stopped by Chatty Monks Brewing Company, one of many enticing restaurants and pubs on bopping Penn Avenue, for an enjoyable dinner and drafts.
Blog contributed by Bryan Hay