History of the George Eastman Museum
Entrepreneur George Eastman (1854–1932), the pioneer of popular photography, completed his Colonial Revival mansion on East Avenue in Rochester in 1905 and resided there until his death. He bequeathed most of his assets to the University of Rochester, expressing a desire that his mansion serve as the residence for the university president. The large house, measuring 35,000 square feet, proved far too large for this purpose, especially without a large service staff.
In 1947, the Board of Regents of the State of New York chartered George Eastman House Inc. as an independent nonprofit educational institution—specifically, a museum of photography and allied pursuits created as a memorial to George Eastman. The next year, the University of Rochester donated Eastman’s mansion and surrounding property to the museum. The institution altered its name several times over the ensuing decades, but its mission has remained steadfast: to collect, preserve, study, and exhibit photographic and cinematic objects and related technology from the inception of each medium to the present.
At the museum’s opening in 1949, it was one of only two American museums with a photography department and one of only two American museums with a film department (the Museum of Modern Art also had both). In 1951, the museum opened the beautiful Dryden Theatre, with seating for more than five hundred people, to exhibit films.
The George Eastman Museum’s position as a leader in its fields is founded on the curatorial visions of Beaumont Newhall, James Card, Rudolf Kingslake, George C. Pratt, Nathan Lyons, Philip Condax, and the gifted leaders and curators who followed them. For the first couple decades of the museum’s history, its curators, faced with relatively limited competition from other collecting institutions, were able to develop world-class collections of great breadth, depth, and quality—mostly through generous gifts from photographers, filmmakers, collectors, and corporate donors.
For almost forty years, the museum displayed objects from its collections in the rooms of George Eastman’s mansion. As its collections expanded and experts became more knowledgeable about the nature and importance of appropriate conditions for the storage of photographs and film, a new museum facility became essential. In 1989, the museum completed construction of a 73,000-square-foot building (more than 70 percent of which is below ground level) that included climate-controlled collection vaults, exhibition galleries, libraries, offices, and photographic conservation and film preservation labs.
Given that George Eastman’s mansion was no longer to be occupied by the exhibition and storage of the photography and cinema collections, a determined group (almost entirely of women), led by Georgia Potter Gosnell and Nancy Turner, undertook the heroic effort of an exacting restoration of the historic mansion and grounds. Based on vintage photographs and other historical evidence, virtually all of the complex decorative interiors of the first floor of the mansion were restored and more than 85 percent of its original furnishings were returned during the two-year process.
Today, visitors to the George Eastman Museum can view at least three temporary exhibitions on photography and cinema in our galleries, tour George Eastman’s mansion and gardens (a National Historic Landmark), and see daily films at the Dryden Theatre.