The Museum began as a legacy of the great Centennial Exhibition of 1876, held in Fairmount Park. At the conclusion of the celebrations, Memorial Hall-which had been constructed as the Exhibition's art gallery-remained open as a Museum of Art and Industry "for the improvement and enjoyment of the people of the Commonwealth".
In the first few decades, the collections consisted of objects of an industrial nature, as well as fine and decorative art objects such as European ceramics. Books were also among the Museum's earliest acquisitions, as were antique furniture, enamels, carved ivories, jewelry, metalwork, glass, pottery, porcelain, textiles, and paintings.
In the early 1900s, the Museum published its first collection handbook and initiated an Education program for the general public. It wasn't long before a Membership program was in place, and plans for a new building gained momentum in the following decade.
Director Fiske Kimball set the tone for a new era in the 1920s, and the opening of the new building on Fairmount-what is now the Main Building-opened with an attendance record of one million visitors in its first year. Valiant marketing efforts and the skillful leadership of President J. Stogdell Stokes helped to keep the Museum vital during the Great Depression of the 1930s, while the 1940s witnessed extraordinary growth in the collections with a number of important gifts-including the John D. McIlhenny Collection and the George Grey Barnard Collection.