Mary Telfair founded the Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences upon her death in 1875. Originally under the auspices of the Georgia Historical Society, when the museum opened its doors in 1886, it was the first public museum in the Southeast and the first U.S. museum founded by a woman.
The 19th century saw the proliferation of museums across the United States and Europe. Citizens, governments, and foundations began to build collections that offered an encyclopedic, though not necessarily academically rigorous, illustration of the knowledge of the Western world. These institutions were designed around enlightenment principles and built on the cabinets of curiosity of previous centuries, encouraging observation and objective reasoning to explore and understand philosophy and the natural world. Yet, even while seeking the enlightenment ideals of logic and reason, these institutions simultaneously rejected the principles of equality and liberty by denying access to much of the population. They were not intended for all Americans and were designed as spaces for middle- and upper-class white citizens.
Today’s art museums, natural history museums, and libraries all emerged from a singular 19th-century institution intended to display specimens, species, and culture. Museums showcased spectacles from the fields of botany, ethnology, paleontology, geology, conchology, minerology, and archaeology, in addition to fine and decorative arts.
Progressive Regression: Examination of a 19th Century Museum explores the original plans for the Telfair Academy in the context of early museum organization, philosophy, and aesthetics, while disrupting the recreated environment with modern interpretation that examines the roots and effects of early museum practice.
Progressive Regression: Examination of a 19th Century Museum is organized by Telfair Museums and curated by Shannon Browning-Mullis, former Curator of History and Decorative Arts.
Investment is provided by the City of Savannah, the Georgia Council for the Arts, and Terra Foundation for American Art.