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Decorative Arts Department Records

Identifier: DEC
The earliest records consist of the correspondence of Museum Committee member Alfred Coxe Prime, and thus predate the Museum's formal establishment of any curatorial office or department of decorative arts. Series 2 through 7 document the work of curatorial staff; namely, Joseph Downs, Henry P. McIlhenny, Joan Prentice (in the absence of McIlhenny), and Calvin Hathaway, who each headed the department, respectively, from 1925 to 1973. Material consists of correspondence, subject files, research and exhibition records. During the time period documented, the Museum redefined the department's curatorial charge several times. "Decorative arts" thus referred to different object groups at different times, which were as follows: (1925-1928) all European and American decorative arts; (1928-1931) European decorative arts dated after 1500 ("Renaissance and Modern") and all American decorative arts; (1931-1967) all European and American decorative arts; (1967-1973) European decorative arts dated after 1700 and all American decorative arts.

Later curatorial records pertaining to decorative arts reside in several departmental record groups, namely: European Decorative Arts before 1700 Department, European Decorative Arts after 1700 Department, Dutch Tiles Records, American Art Department Records, and American Decorative Art Department Records. The Medieval Art Department Records include a small amount of correspondence of David DuBon, who became curator of Medieval and Renaissance Decorative Art at the time Hathaway assumed responsiblitiy for objects dated after 1700. No other records for DuBon have been transferred to the Archives.


  • 1917-1978


Access Restrictions

The collection is open for research.

Use Restrictions

The Decorative Arts Department Records are the physical property of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Archives. The Museum holds literary rights only for material created by Museum personnel or given to the Museum with such rights specifically assigned. For all other material, literary rights, including copyright, belong to the authors or their legal heirs and assigns. Researchers are responsible for obtaining permission from rights holders for publication and for other purposes where stated.


18.5 linear feet


None available.

Historical Note

Although never a curator, Alfred Coxe Prime honed his expertise in the field of decoratives arts as a collector and author. From 1919 to 1925, he also served as a member of the Museum Committee, and at the time of his death in 1926, Museum president Eli Kirk Price described Coxe as an "authority on all branches of Americana."

In 1925 the Museum appointed Joseph Downs as an Assistant Curator responsible for decorative arts, which had until then been the responsibility of Dr. Samuel Woodhouse. According to earlier annual reports, Woodhouse had been the curator of Old Pennsylvania Pottery, and an honorary curator oversaw European porcelain. (Oriental pottery had always been a separate curatorial category.) At the time of Downs' appointment, "decorative arts" was not a formal designation; instead, as listed in the 1927 annual report, his curatorial responsibility consisted of "woodwork, ceramics, etc." (Other curatorial staff oversaw "Ironwork, armor" and "textiles.") With the appointment of Francis Taylor as curator of Medieval Art in 1928, the Museum named Downs its "Renaissance and Modern Art" curator of decorative arts. When Taylor left in 1931, Downs once again assumed responsibility for all European and American decorative art. He left the Museum in April 1932 for the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

Henry P. McIlhenny joined the Museum staff in 1934 as Decorative Arts Assistant. Over the next three years he served as Assistant and Associate Curator, and in 1939 he was appointed Curator. McIlhenny took a leave of absence from 1942 to 1946 (in the U. S. Navy). In 1964 he was named to the Museum's Board of Trustees but also remained with the curatorial department as an Advisor. During McIlhenny's wartime absence, Joan Prentice was the Assistant Curator of Decorative Arts. From 1943 to 1946 she served as Associate Curator, and then Curator of Ceramics and Silver from 1946 to 1948.

Calvin S. Hathaway came to the Museum in 1931 as Secretary to the Director and Editor of the Museum Bulletin. In 1932 he became the Assistant to the Chief of Decorative Arts, but he left in 1933 to join Cooper-Union in New York. In 1963 he returned to the Museum as The R. Wistar Harvey Curator of Decorative Art, a position he held until July 1973 when poor health required him to resign.

David DuBon came to Museum in 1958 as Associate Curator and became Assistant Curator of Decorative Arts in 1964. In 1967 the department was split into two sections and DuBon became the Curator of Medieval and Renaissance Decorative Arts while Hathaway headed the department of Decorative Arts After 1700. In 1973 Kathryn B. Hiesinger, who came to the PMA in 1971 as DuBon's Curatorial Assistant, succeeded Hathaway as curator.

In 1974 to clearly define the department's responsibility, which was now separate from American decorative arts as well as European decorative arts before 1700, the department under Kathryn Hiesinger's curatorial supervision became "European Decorative Arts after 1700." It continues to operate as such.


The material comprising the "Research" series was returned from the American Art Department in 1999. After Calvin Hathaway's departure from the Museum in 1973, these files were apparently turned over to David Hanks, curator of American Art in 1974. Hanks may have used these for his own research purposes.

Separated Material

Moved to European Decorative Arts after 1700 Department Records (EDA). "Second Empire Exhibition Records."

Processing Information

These materials were arranged and described by Alice Lefton, Bertha Adams and Leslie O'Neill. Funded by a grant from The National Historical Publications and Records Commission.


Guide to the Decorative Arts Department Records
Finding aid prepared by Alice Lefton, Bertha Adams and Leslie O'Neill
Language of description
Funded by a grant from The National Historical Publications and Records Commission
Edition statement

Revision Statements

  • 1/20/2006: Susie Anderson: New nodes and citation
  • 6/11/2007: Bertha Adams: June 11, 2007
  • 3/30/2011: Susie Anderson: nhprc

Repository Details

Part of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Library and Archives Repository

Philadelphia Museum of Art
PO Box 7646
Philadelphia PA 19101-7646 United States