From the beginning, the collections of the Museum were intended to instill a pride of ethnic identity and knowledge of world cultures. Instruction in geography, cultures, and history was solidified through close examination of museum objects, which were carefully acquired to support the curriculum. The first objects were acquired from the Pacific Islands by the school’s founder, General Samuel Chapman Armstrong, who was born and raised in Hawaii and a son of missionary/educator parents. By the 1870s, Hampton had established an African studies program and dozens of African pieces from various cultures were registered into the collection over the following three decades.
Then, in 1911, the school acquired the William H. Sheppard Collection of African Art – several hundred works gathered by Hampton alumnus William Sheppard between 1890 and 1910 in what is today the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Not only was Sheppard the first Westerner to enter the Kuba Kingdom, he was the first African American to collect African art in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His contribution to Hampton University Museum’s collections makes it the oldest collection of Kuba related material in the world.
In 1878, Hampton began a pioneering program in America Indian education. Between 1878 and 1923, over 1300 native students from 66 tribal groups attended the school. Collecting American Indian, as well as African art, was consciously tied to nurturing ethnic pride and developing cross-cultural understanding among students.
The Museum is composed of the world’s first collection of African American fine art, which began with the 1894 acquisition of two paintings by Henry O. Tanner. One of these paintings, The Banjo Lesson, is acknowledged as the most admired work by an African American artist. Hampton was the recipient of a gift of hundreds of artworks from the Harmon Foundation in 1967, which includes representation of most of the important artists from the Harlem Renaissance into the early 1960s. The museum also houses the Countee and Ida Cullen Art Collection; a group of 29 works of art acquired from the widow of the famed Harlem Renaissance poet. Among the most outstanding holdings are works by three important figures connected to the visual arts at Hampton: John T. Biggers, Elizabeth Catlett, and Samella S. Lewis.
The Museum has expanded its collection of contemporary artists to include Romare Bearden, Sam Gilliam, Murry DePillars, Richard Mayhew, Moe Brooker, Raymond Saunders, David MacDonald, Ron Adams, Sonya Clark, James Phillips, and Margo Humphrey. Additionally, more than forty contemporary self-trained artists are represented in the collection including Anderson Johnson, Mose Tolliver, Bessie Harvey, Purvis Young, and Thornton Dial, Sr. Today the collection numbers over 1,500 pieces and is one of the largest and strongest collections of African American art in the world.
The Museum’s Asian and Pacific Islands collection includes acquisitions from Japan and the Philippines. Many of the pieces in the Japanese collection were acquired in 1918 from the estate of Alice Bacon, a former teacher at Hampton who went to Japan in 1888 to teach women in the Imperial Court. The Philippine Collection, acquired in 1914, is representative of both the southern and northern regions of the Philippines.
Containing a wide variety of objects, the history collection is the most recent to be established. The nearly 700 objects reflect Hampton’s historic mission to “educate the head, the hand, and the heart” of the students. Included are tools and implements from the agricultural program; products such as furniture and textiles made by students ; teaching resources for both the trade school and the academic program; including club and athletic team memorabilia, nurses uniforms and objects related to the instructional program, school life and the accomplishments of graduates.