The wonderful collections at the Reading Public Museum got started by a teacher who wanted his students to have a better experience with their learning. Dr. Levi Walter Mengel, who taught at the Boys’ High School in Reading, believed that “giving a child a chance to see and handle the things about which they study is not only the greatest timesaver, but the most effective way of giving the absolutely correct impression.” As an entomologist who studied plants and animals throughout the world, been a member of the Peary Expedition to Greenland in 1891, and collected antiquities during his travels, Mengel used his personal collection to help bring history alive for his students.
He donated this collection to the Reading School District, which combined the materials with nearly 2,000 pieces acquired from the St. Louis World’s Fair so that students could see, touch and learn objects from around the globe. The museum opened in 1907, on the third floor of the Reading School District administrative building. Several paintings were added to the fledgling museum in 1913 and by 1925, friends of Dr. Mengel broke ground for a modern museum building.
Even though today it’s hard to tell that the building is nearing its 100th birthday, the current museum was opened in 1928. The Levi Mengel Memorial Trust has made purchase of more than 700 paintings that now include works by Benjamin West, John Singer Sargent, Edgar Degas, Raphaelle Peale and Frederick Church. The collection expands from there, with Greek vases and a real mummy from Ptolamaic Egypt, coexist peacefully with over 100 sculptures, thousands of graphics, more than 200 watercolors, and a contemporary art collection that includes Chihuly, Close and Harding. Over 30,000 more objects include sculpture from Southeast Asia, ivory and jade from China, textile work from American Indians and more.
Plan to spend plenty of time when you visit. There’s a lot to see here. Plus, on a fine sunny day, stroll the gardens of the Arboretum and visit the Planetarium. Mengel would be proud of the incredible collection that brings history alive in Reading!