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A former prison turned art museum is one of the top cultural attractions in Bucks County. The Michener Art Museum in Doylestown showcases work from artists around Bucks County in its spacious galleries. Visitors can enjoy the largest public collection of Pennsylvania Impressionist paintings along with temporary exhibits featuring photography, sculpture, and other works.
Named for Doylestown-born Pulitzer Prize-winning author James A. Michener, the museum focuses on interpreting and showcasing the artistic heritage of the Delaware Valley. Works in its galleries stretch from the mid-1800s to present day and cover a variety of styles.
It hosts a broad range of special events, including conversations with artists, lectures, classes, and performances, so there is always something new to experience.
The Michener Art Museum was originally home to Bucks County Prison, which dates from 1884. After 100 years in use, its buildings had already been partially demolished when it was identified as a site for a new museum celebrating local artists.
After much reimagining and construction, the Michener Art Museum opened in 1988 as an independent, non-profit cultural institution. The prison’s original stone walls and the warden’s house are the framework for the museum and its offices.
Author James A. Michener donated significantly to the endowment and contributed artworks from his personal collection. Over the next several years, Michener and his wife continued to ensure—through their gifts and their efforts—that it would be a leading museum in the area.
The permanent collection has over 2700 works, including paintings, sculptures, furniture, and more. It is most well-known for its collection of Pennsylvania Impressionist works—a school that was based in nearby New Hope in the early 1900s.
Edward Redfield’s impressionist landscapes, Fern Coppedge’s winter scenes, and Daniel Garber’s paintings and works on paper are well represented within the collection. In one gallery Garber’s 22-foot-long A Wooded Watershed—which was commissioned for the 1926 World’s Fair in Philadelphia—occupies an entire wall.
One unique feature in the museum is the George Nakashima Reading Room. The Japanese-style room is filled with furniture made by Nakashima, a master woodworker from Bucks County. The room was designed by his daughter to showcase his works and to provide a serene space within the museum.
Both inside and outside the museum, visitors will find sculpture gardens to enjoy.
A room off the atrium pays homage to the museum’s namesake. “James A. Michener: A Living Legacy” features memorabilia from the author and provides background on his life story. It includes his desk, typewriter, and dictionary from his Bucks County home as well as the Presidential Medal of Freedom he was awarded in 1977.
Special exhibits and programs
In addition to the permanent collection, the Michener Art Museum is notable for its temporary exhibitions that feature different types of artworks with a regional connection. They range from preeminent Pop Art painter Keith Haring to National Geographic photographer Steve McCurry to student showcases.
Lectures and workshops featuring art scholars and artists are also common at the museum, allowing visitors to dive deeper on a range of subject matter. Plus, there are regular classes and workshops for children of all ages.