Up Close and Personal – Statues and Their Meaning


The first time I came across the statues that sit along the top of the building was when I digitized images of the Museum’s exterior as an intern in the Archives. It was great to see some of the early images of the building and to see how it developed and changed over the years. The statues are part of our Museum’s history and a frequently asked research topic at the Libraries and Archives. When I was thinking about this post, I was curious to see what types of questions we’ve received in the past, so I took a look at some of our old reference request forms. Yes, in typical archives fashion we keep these forms and they can be very useful, such as in this situation. The questions about the statues include inquiries about specific sculptors, the meaning of the statues, who created them, and when and how they were made. Here’s a little background information on the creation of the statues.


McKim, Mead & White, the architects of the Museum, included the statues as part of the Museum’s original design. The statues and the unrelated names inscribed below them were meant to represent notable aspects in the history of civilization. The statues in particular were symbolic and not intended to be portraits. This is visually reinforced by the fact that the statues and the names are not aligned, but staggered (see photo above).

Daniel Chester French in his workshop. Photo Collection: Museum building: exteriors [02].

The noted sculptor Daniel Chester French was given the responsibility of creating thirty statues of allegorical figures representing Persian, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Hebrew, Greek and Roman subjects. He enlisted a group of highly-regarded sculptors to assist him with the project (Edmund T. Quinn, Attilio Piccirili, Edward C. Potter, Karl Bitter, Janet Scudder, Augustus Lukeman, Charles Keck, George T. Brewster, Kenyon Cox, Herbert Adams, John Gelert, and Charles A. Heber). The finished statues were installed in 1909.

Finished statues being hoisted into position. Photo Collection: Museum building: exteriors [02].

Because of the continuing interest in the statues, we thought it might be a good idea to put together some images and information on them. This was a group effort which included various departments (Information Systems, Digital Collections and Services, Conservation, Planning and Libraries and Archives). See below for additional images and resources. Hope you enjoy them.


  • On the East façade (Washington Avenue), there are statues representing Persian Religion, The Indian Law Giver, Indian Literature, Indian Philosophy, and Indian Religion.
  • The North façade (Eastern Parkway) features Chinese Religion, Chinese Philosophy, Chinese Art, Chinese Law, Japanese Art, The Hebrew Law Giver, The Hebrew Psalmist, The Hebrew Prophet, The Hebrew Apostle, The Genius of Islam, The Greek Epic, Greek Lyric Poetry, The Greek Drama, The Greek Statesman, Greek Science, Greek Religion, Greek Philosophy, Greek Architecture, Greek Sculpture, and Greek Letters.
  • The West façade shows Roman Law, the Roman Statesman, the Roman Emperor, the Roman Orator, and the Roman Epic.

Online Resources


These photos were taken by our Conservation team in 2001 just prior to the construction of our new entrance. The initial phase of the ambitious construction project called for the restoration of the entire Eastern Parkway façade of the building, which included the cleaning and re-pointing of all the limestone and granite. With scaffolding in place, the Museum’s conservation staff took advantage of a rare opportunity to survey the thirty large-scale statues on the Museum’s cornice and make necessary repairs.
Slideshow created with Admarket’s flickrSLiDR. Having trouble seeing the slideshow? Photos are also on Flickr.

Further information on the statues can also be found in the Museum’s Library, which is open to the public Wednesday through Friday from 10:00 to 12:00 and 1:00 to 4:30.