Touring the Surprising Reading Public Museum by Jim Cheney
Located just outside of downtown Reading is one of Pennsylvania’s most surprisingly impressive museums: the Reading Public Museum.
To be perfectly honest, when I decided to visit this Berks County museum, I really wasn’t expecting too much. However, what I found here really blew me away in regards to both the quality of the museum and how well curated the displays are.
The Reading Public Museum was the brainchild of local schoolteacher, Dr. Levi Mengel. Dr. Mengel believed that sensory learning was important in the sciences and amassed an impressive collection for his science classes. After purchasing over 2,000 items from the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Mengel opened a small museum for his students in a school building in 1907.
However, he quickly outgrew that space, and in 1913, the Reading Public Museum was opened to the public. Over the coming years, Mengel acquired more pieces, including some exceptional art, which necessitated a move to the current building in 1929.
This large, stone building sits elegantly in West Reading, a borough that borders downtown Reading, PA. Aside from an addition to accommodate a gift shop and ADA requirements, the building remains as it did when it was first constructed in the 1920s.
Over 100 years after it was founded, the museum’s collection has expanded to include 300,000 items related to natural history, world cultures, and art. Even with over 20,000 square feet of exhibit space, the Reading Public Museum is able to showcase only a small portion of their expansive collection. However, the museum has done an excellent job of curating the collection to cover a wide variety of topics while still providing enough depth to please any critic.
The museum’s first floor features the museum’s entrance and gift shop. There is also a small section dedicated to the founder of the museum, Dr. Levi Mengel, which even includes an animatronic Mengel welcoming visitors to the museum.
There is also a small temporary exhibition gallery that features a rotating selection of works on paper and a large auditorium, which is home to a fantastic painting titled “Smokey Range” by Christopher High Shearer. Shearer was a widely known artist from Berks County who served as the museum’s first curator.
The second floor focuses on the museum’s cultural and scientific collections. I was especially impressed with both the World Cultures Gallery and the Ancient Cultures Gallery. The World Cultures Gallery features a small, but diverse collection of items from Asia, Africa, and Papua New Guinea. Most of these items were collected in the 1920s and offer a great overview of the regions’ art and culture.
The Ancient Cultures Gallery is home to items from Egypt, Greece, and Rome. However, as great as this collection is, it’s likely that most notice little in the room other than the museum’s popular Egyptian mummy. Named Nefrina by the museum, the mummy is one of the museum’s most popular exhibits, and it’s very interesting to get an up-close look at this ancient body.
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