Considered one of the finest outside India, the collection of works from the Indian subcontinent, the Tibetan plateau, Iran, and Afghanistan has been reinstalled in totally new ways.
Masterworks have come out from the darkness of storage to see the light for the first time. New art has been commissioned and acquired, some galleries have been opened up, and others have been closed to direct daylight, allowing exhibition of light-sensitive works.
But this $2.7 million renovation and reinstallation, which also includes the smaller collection of Southeast Asian works, offers more than a face-lift and new baubles for the ball.
Stunning curatorial detective work has led to a complete change in the presentation of a signature work of art - the 16th-century Indian Temple Hall, the only such structure standing outside India.
Once they step from the elevator, visitors will now be greeted with a vista that stretches from the elaborate granite temple hall all the way down the museum's south wing to the Japanese teahouse.
This view had been impossible before because of a misreading of the nature of the temple, which led the museum to put it within a closed gallery.
That misperception of one of the gallery's best-known works has stood for more than half a century. It can be traced to the sudden death of Adeline Pepper Gibson, who visited Madurai in south India in 1912 and acquired the temple, which had been demolished in the 1840s and was lying about in rubble piles on the grounds of the Madurai temple complex.
Gibson shipped the trove back to Philadelphia but died in France. Uncertain what to do, her family donated the temple to the museum, then in Memorial Hall.
"In 1919, when this was set up, the museum arranged a pageant - a costume pageant, with over 100 Philadelphians, including orchestra members - to welcome the Temple Hall to our shores," said Darielle Mason, the museum's curator of Indian and Himalayan art. "We have the script, and the music written by the director, and newspaper clips from the family that said the Mayan gods of the Americas would welcome the gods of India to our shores. It's a wonderful story of appreciation."
But appreciation of what?
When the current museum building opened in 1928, then-director Fiske Kimball brought in a historian who determined - incorrectly - that the Temple Hall was an interior hall drawn from a different temple in Madurai.
This led to a 1940 presentation that drew visitors into a dark, closed space.
"You could barely see the pillars," Mason said.
The presentation "just didn't work," said Mason, who visited south India several times in the last seven years researching the nature of the temple. This led to the current reconstruction.
The hall "was actually completely light-filled," she said. "It was a celebration hall. It was outside, in front of the main complex, and that's what we are aiming to help people understand. And all of a sudden, by lighting it up, you recognize the magnificence of the carving, and the sense of life and celebration that was in it."
A video installed in the gallery was made of the current temple in Madurai, showing typical daily celebrations there:
Sounds of festivals and daily activity will fill the gallery.
Beyond the temple hall, other works of art will be on view for the first time, including a 14-foot, 19th-century Nepalese scroll depicting pilgrims and deities in the Kathmandu valley. The scroll was acquired in 2000 but has never been shown.
There are new acquisitions, including a contemporary animation by Pakistan-born Shahzia Sikander, with a soundscape by Shanghai-born Du Yun. Sikander's animation, commissioned by the Art Museum, is inspired by the museum's lavishly illustrated 1743 manuscript Rose Garden of Love. The original Rose Garden, as well as a touchable facsimile, will be displayed.
All of this will be contained in a small gallery framed by a 300-year-old coffered ceiling and vaulted archway from Isfahan in Iran.
Two gigantic shrine images, gifts of H. Peter Stern on the occasion of his marriage to Helen Drutt English, will be in separate galleries, their first public display.
"These are just world masterpieces," said Mason, co-author with Art Museum postdoctoral fellow Neeraja Poddar of Krishna's Earthly Paradise, a just-published book on the gifts.
"We also have a fantastic carved wooden door, stuck in the Temple Hall since 1940, from Pakistan," said Mason. "It's totally inappropriate to a south Indian hall. We've taken it down, we've conserved it, we've figured out how it actually came together, almost like a jigsaw puzzle."
New lighting, discrete use of digital technology, flexible display cases, and installations that emphasize stories and themes - such as spirituality, power, nature, and status - are employed to activate the 7,600 square feet of exhibition space.
One gallery will present a kind of homage to legendary museum curator Stella Kramrisch (1896-1993), whose efforts largely shaped the museum's collection.
About 180 objects will be displayed at any one time, with changes at fairly regular intervals and enhanced programming that officials believe will draw new audiences.
"We are able to approach things in a much more thematic way and give visitors a much more exciting visual aspect," Mason said. "All of a sudden there's color in with all the masses of stone."
Philadelphia Museum of Art: 26th Street and the Parkway.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday; until 8:45 p.m. Wednesday and Friday. Information: 215-763-8100 or www.philamuseum.org