Hands-on learning was the impetus behind, and the direct result of the initiative and effort of Dr. Levi W. Mengel, the Reading Public Museum's founder and first director. As a teacher at Boys' High School in the Reading School District with an extraordinarily broad background and interest, Dr. Mengel realized the importance of using three dimensional objects for a "sensory education" to motivate student participation and enrich the student learning experience. Two of Dr. Mengel's quotes describing his philosophy for this type of learning, are still very relevant today. "The eye can see more in a minute than a half hour's descriptive reading will tell. 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 an absolutely correct impression. With careful training and having the attention called to peculiar characters, not only is knowledge imparted but the habit of attention and close observation is developed." The second is, "The function of The Museum is to furnish food for thought and to expand the human intellect by bringing in contact with the senses, the actual material whereby knowledge may be gained direct."

Through his insistence, Dr. Mengel was granted permission by the school district to collect scientific and anthropological materials that could be used as teaching aids and to house them in the former administration building of the Reading School District. The use of ancient coins from his growing collection so stimulated one class that it encouraged Dr. Mengel to write in his diary, "...this history class may be said to be the starting point of The Museum...."

Dr. Mengel's personal collections, donated during his lifetime, formed the nucleus of the present Museum. The first important teaching exhibits of museum calibre were obtained at the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904. Nearly 2,000 items were obtained from China, Japan, India, Ceylon, the Philippines and the Central and South American Republics.

With this as a beginning, the third floor of the Reading School District administration building at Eighth and Washington Streets was converted into a museum in 1907. A plan to open The Museum for the public developed in 1913, and the first suggestion was made that an art gallery be incorporated into the plan. Several paintings were presented and the name of the infant museum became the READING PUBLIC MUSEUM AND ART GALLERY.

In 1924, the Reading School District asked the citizens of Reading to approve a loan to provide certain needed school buildings. Included in this were provisions for a modern museum building. After a campaign in which the school children took an active part, the loan was passed and the plans for The Museum were drawn up. The present site was selected and donated to the Reading School District by Ferdinand Thun and Irvin F. Impink, breaking ground in 1925.

By 1929, the new building opened to the public and the collections continued to grow. As with most museums, a comparatively small part of the collection is on exhibit at any one time. Much of the material is held in reserve to permit changes in the displays from time to time, while others are educational collections which may never be exhibited, but are preserved for scholarly study.

The Reading Public Museum contains many priceless collections that could not be duplicated today. Over 11,000 first class specimens, the cream of several old collections purchased by Dr. Mengel in the first half of this century, make up the collection of Berks County Indian relics.

Art objects of importance have come to the Reading Public Museum from all over the world. The series of Greek vases on display in the Ancient Civilizations Gallery are some excellent examples of the various periods and techniques which illustrate the development of this art form.

While the art of many nations and people is represented in the permanent collection, special emphasis has been placed on painting. The fine art collection includes more than seven hundred oil paintings by American and foreign artists such as Benjamin West, Milton Avery, John Singer Sargent, N.C. Wyeth, George Bellows, Raphaelle Peale, Henry Raeburn, Frederic Church, Joshua Reynolds, Julien Dupre, and Edgar Degas. In addition, the Reading Public Museum possesses over one hundred sculptures, thousands of graphics, and more than two hundred water colors.

The natural history collection encompasses hundreds of thousands of insects, thousands of birds and mammals, and more than 25,000 specimens that document the mineral wealth of our planet. Over 30,000 objects are included in the anthropological and historical collections, including sculpture from Southeast Asia, ivory and jade from China, a magnificent collection of Roman glass, Incan gold and a large and comprehensive collection of sculpture and textile work of American Indians, much of which is unique to The Museum. Almost all of the present exhibits and the reserve collections have been generously donated by public-spirited citizens.

The Levi W. Mengel Memorial Trust was established to provide funds to make possible the purchase of some of the many fine and desirable articles which are available from time to time. Increasing the amount of money in the endowment fund is a constant challenge, and gifts or bequests are earnestly solicited.

In 1992, a new era dawned for the Reading Public Museum. Governance of The Museum was transferred from the Reading School District to a private, non-profit foundation. With the Foundation's leadership and partnership with the County of Berks, Reading School District, and the City of Reading, there has been a rededication to The Museum's Mission. As a result of this restructuring, the Reading Public Museum is enjoying a renewed vitality.

Because The Museum has its roots in the public school system, there is a rich tradition of using the collections for teaching and research. Every year, thousands of elementary and secondary school students from Berks County's eighteen school districts visit The Museum. Recently, The Museum has extended its outreach to include both school and college students and other interested visitors from within a fifty mile radius of our location. The Reading Public Museum is now a regional resource providing an artistic and educational venue serving South Central and Southeastern Pennsylvania.

Today, the Reading Public Museum, Neag Planetarium and Arboretum provide educational and cultural programs which reach hundreds of thousands of people annually.

Contributed by igrkio
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