The Hall of Sculpture was originally designed to house Carnegie Museum of Art’s collection of reproduction Egyptian, Near Eastern, Greek, and Roman sculptures. When the hall opened in 1907, a majority of these 69 plaster casts occupied the ground floor. The design of the hall was inspired the Parthenon, the fifth-century BCE temple in Athens, Greece. Dedicated to the virgin goddess Athena, the protectress of Athens, the Parthenon (from the Greek word parthenos, meaning “maiden” or “virgin”) was built overlooking the city. The imperial scale of the Parthenon, the beauty of its decorative sculpture, and the visual harmony among its architectural elements account for its renown ever since it was built.
The architects of the Hall of Sculpture chose to model their room on the Parthenon’s cella, or inner sanctuary, which was distinguished by a double tier of columns (the cella of the Parthenon had to accommodate a 40-foot statue of Athena). The hall was constructed with brilliant white marble from the same quarries in Greece that provided the stone for the Parthenon. Because the Hall of Sculpture was a public museum space, the architects created a balcony with a decorative iron railing to make viewing from the second floor possible. The balcony of the Hall of Sculpture is now reserved for decorative arts objects—principally glass, ceramics, and metalwork—that may range in date from the 18th to the 20th century.
While much of Andrew Carnegie’s cast collection, including several notable examples from the Parthenon itself, is currently on view in the museum’s Hall of Architecture, several works have been placed on pedestals around the Hall of Sculpture balcony as reminders of the original purpose of the room. Still installed directly below the skylight in the position it has occupied since 1907 is a plaster reproduction of the carved frieze, or decorative band, that was originally positioned on the exterior of the Parthenon’s cella. This frieze depicts the procession that inaugurated the annual festival of Athena in ancient Athens.
Today in the Hall of Sculpture, Carnegie Museum of Art displays works from its permanent collection; it has frequently been used for site-specific installations and performances. For the 1988 Carnegie International, the museum’s triennial exhibition of contemporary art, the German artist Lothar Baumgarten (b. 1944) produced The Tongue of the Cherokee for the hall’s skylight ceiling. This work presents the Cherokee alphabet, which was formulated in the early 19th century. Just as the choice of a Greek-inspired design for the Hall of Sculpture reflects the importance of that ancient culture to American politics, so the Cherokee alphabet serves as a reminder of the presence in this country of Native Americans and recognizes their role in American history.