Reference and Research Services

Contributed by Sharon Yoon, Museum Collections Assistant

One of the things I’ve come to enjoy the most while working at PAFA is assisting researchers with research requests. The archives contain a trove of information that is vital for not only documenting institutional history, but also the artists that have trained or exhibited here at the Academy.

Because of our long history, we receive a wide range of research requests. The most common questions are regarding an artwork’s provenance, exhibition history, or whether an artist studied at PAFA.

With access being a core component of the archives’ mission, we welcome all researchers to visit and consult sources in-person. Understanding that not everyone is able to physically come to PAFA, staff work to provide assistance through email—if you have a question about PAFA history, we will (most likely) have answers (! 

For the past few months, I was able to gain insights on historical research methods, as well as learn a lot about PAFA’s archival collection and which collections would lead to the best records.

For this blog post, I’d like to share the thought process of how I handled a recent research request. A scholar sent an email requesting more information on May Howard Jackson (1877-1931), a Black artist and sculptor who attended classes at the Academy beginning in 1895. The researcher was specifically interested in Jackson’s student records, particularly the details of the scholarship that afforded her the opportunity to attend PAFA as well as her activities during her time at PAFA.

Unfortunately, the student records collected from this time period were not as comprehensive as our 20th century student records. Since there was no designated academic student file for Jackson, some digging into other sources was required. Many secondary sources online suggested Jackson attended PAFA in 1895 so that was my starting date. With this date, this led me to look into our student registers—large ledger books that listed students by year. Sifting through the student register, I found her entry! Note that these specific student registers were signed by the student/artist themselves.

See line 92; Student Register 1894-1904 (RG.03.03.04) 

Given that the student register only provided a name, an address, a class she took, and the scholarship, it could be implied that this was the same May Howard Jackson that the researcher requested information on. However, to be a bit more thorough, I used the address listed for Howard in the student register and cross-referenced it with Philadelphia census records. The 1890 Philadelphia census records were largely destroyed by fire but looking into the 1900 records confirmed that May Howard (Jackson) did live at the address written in the student register.  This was further confirmed by looking up maps of Philadelphia wards and checking that her address in the student register fell in the geographic area of the 2nd ward. The provided house number, names of known family members, and occupations listed in the census also lined up with known information on May Howard Jackson. 

See line 66, 67.  “United States Census, 1900”, , FamilySearch ( :
Tue Mar 05 19:56:11 UTC 2024), Entry for Floarda Howard and May Howard, 1900. 

The next step was to find more information on the scholarship she received to attend the Academy. Listed as “Scholarship Bd Ed.”, I looked into the minutes of the Committee on Instruction and Board of Directors from the 1890s in hopes of finding details or conditions of the scholarship. In a February 1895 meeting of the Board of Directors, it was recorded that

“The President referred to the efforts made by the Academy to secure an appropriation from the city, and said that a bill appropriating $5000 had passed through Councils and had been signed by the Mayor; and in accordance with the request of the Board of Public Education, the President was authorized to form a committee of three to confer with a similar committee from that body on the subject of the scholarships to be given.” 

The minutes confirmed that a scholarship was established in 1895 by the Academy in conjunction with the Board of Public Education. Other notes (not pictured) stated that the scholarship would enact in the fall of 1895. 

Reading into the Committee on Instruction minutes was next, as I hoped there would be more illuminating information regarding the conditions of the scholarship and how May Howard Jackson would have been a recipient. Notes taken a few years after 1895 clearly outlined the scholarship’s requirements— namely that students of the Public Industrial Art School could register for an examination to be awarded one. This was a great find, as secondary sources and articles published about May Howard Jackson state that she attended J. Liberty Tadd’s Philadelphia Art School— more well known as the Public Industrial Art School of Philadelphia. She was among the first students to attend classes at the Academy with this scholarship, and the first Black female student to attend on scholarship. 

Committee on Instruction records, Minutes 1895-1903 

With this information at hand, I was able to provide the researcher with detailed answers about May Howard Jackson and personally learn more about this artist and the Academy’s history.

PAFA has two works by May Howard Jackson: 

Student Stories: Internship Experience

Contributed by Catherine Wan, intern

I write many essays and never give much thought to the creation of the primary sources I use. The databases, articles, and journals are all simply online. However, this internship has allowed me to participate directly in the creation of a digital collection comprised of primary source documents and photographs.

The digital collection will showcase archived documents from Asian students who attended the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts from 1917-1949. The work will help support PAFA’s initiative to highlight historically marginalized groups in the US. As a Chinese American, a history major, and someone interested in art, the chance to put a spotlight on these students is very important to me.

My work of scanning, formatting, and cataloging has allowed me to hold the delicate, aged papers these students once poured their hopes into. Each document describes their unique view of art and beauty, and their willingness to contribute to the field. The process of digitization ensures that this section of their life spent at PAFA will not fade nor remain hidden from the public. Instead, these newly digitized records will be preserved digitally and available freely online.

Like many general users, I didn’t realize all the necessary steps that were required to create digital collections. During my work in school, I never thought about how the digital records/collections came to be. Now, I was part of the creation process! I have the satisfaction of contributing a bit to the sea of online resources for users.

Alumni Spotlight: Susan H. Bradley

Contributed by Hoang Tran, Director of Archives & Collections

As George Orwell wrote in 1984, “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” For this reason, archivists play an essential role in preserving the memory and legacy of people, places, and things. Archivists are only one part of the equation. We need the help of scholars, historians, genealogists, and curators to guide our decisions on what materials should be preserved for posterity.

But what happens when records are not preserved? Moreover, who gets to be remembered and who is forgotten?

Using PAFA’s archives, I have been assisting the descendant of Susan H. Bradley (1851-1929) conduct genealogical research. Together, our work attempts to raise awareness of Bradley’s influence on the Philadelphia and Boston art scene during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Please read more about Bradley on the National Museum of Women in the Arts blog: Susan H. Bradley: A Rediscovered Powerhouse

Browse images of Bradley’s work in PAFA’s Digital Archives.

COVID-19 Updates

Next week will mark one year that the archives will be closed due to the pandemic. A majority of PAFA staff have continued working remotely, including the archives. Fortunately, we managed to remain productive during this time.

  1. The project team completed the Rediscovering John Rhoden grant project.
    • Completed the digitization right before closure.
    • Completed cataloging over 3900 items.
    • Completed the collection finding aid.
    • Completed the John Rhoden digital portal. We are currently doing a round of edits before we publicly promote and launch the digital portal and finding aid.
  2. Updated and created a number of online resources on PAFA’s history.

PAFA will temporarily close to the public beginning Saturday, March 14, until further notice.

The health and safety of our community is, and must be, our highest priority. PAFA will continue to monitor the global and local situation with regard to COVID-19, including advisories from local and national health authorities, while the Museum is closed to the public.

As a result, all research requests have been suspended until further notice. We urge patrons to use our Digital Archives to access historical records and online resources to supplement your research needs for the time being.

Any relevant updates related to PAFA’s museum operations will be posted on our website’s dedicated COVID-19 page. We encourage you to check back often.

New Digital Collections Portal

Contributed by Hoang Tran, Director of Archives

Over the summer months, the Archives has been working diligently behind the scenes upgrading our digital collections platform–from Omeka to Omeka S. The new platform provides greater flexibility as we grow our digital collections.

We are still performing web and user interface tests, ensuring a seamless transition and simple, straightforward navigation. The launch of PAFA’s New Digital Archives will be September 1, 2019.

Newly processed collection: Jessie Willcox Smith periodical illustrations

Contributed by Hoang Tran, Director of Archives

The Dorothy and Kenneth Woodcock Archives recently acquired a collection of periodical illustrations by PAFA Alumna Jessie Willcox Smith 1863-1935). Compiled by a collector over many years, the illustrations eventually made its way here after the estate donated it to PAFA.

Smith was a prolific illustrator during the late 19th, early 20th centuries. Her work has been published in many of the leading magazines of the time including Collier’s, Good Housekeeping, Harper’s Bazaar, Woman’s Home Companion, and Ladies’ Home Journal.

Researchers can access the finding aid for the collection here: Collection of Jessie Willcox Smith periodical illustrations (MS.2018.01)

PAFA’s Archives also has a small collection of Jessie Willcox Smith personal papers (MS.026).



New Digital Collection – School Class photograph collection

Contributed by Hoang Tran, Director of Archives

The Dorothy and Kenneth Woodcock Archives is happy to announce that the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts’ School photograph collection has been fully digitized and available online on PAFA’s Digital Archives.

As America’s first fine art school, we are proud to provide students and artists an intense immersion in art-making anchored in a rich heritage of artistic achievement. It is without question, PAFA provides a fine arts education unlike any other.


Photographs in this collection provide a glimpse at the studio arts training in painting, illustration, drawing, printmaking, sculpture, and of course, PAFA’s long-standing tradition of working from the figure. Photographs also provide evidence of our vibrant community of artists, curators, critics and teachers who create complex, diverse and provocative work and provide inspiration and stimulus for individual expression.