The Denison University collection was established in 1943. The founder and chair of the Art Treasure Room, as it was then called, Edmund G. Burke requested alumni and friends of the University to donate a painting, a tapestry, a vase, an engraving, a watercolor, a choice piece of silver, or an article of antiquity to Denison. The collection was initially housed in the William Howard Doane Library, but as the collection expanded, additional space was required. The Burke Hall of Art and Music was constructed in 1973 to house a concert hall for the Music Department and a gallery and storage area for the permanent art collection. The building was designed by the architectural firm of Perkins and Will, and named after the main benefactor of the arts at Denison, Edmund G. Burke.
Despite Burke’s initial calls for art objects to be donated to Denison in the 1940s, the collection was largely formed by gifts and purchases in the 1960s and 1970s. With the advent of the Vietnam War, Denison chose to collect the art of Burma because of the University’s historical connection with the country through its Baptist missionary alumni, and also because no other US institution was doing so. The art department in particular envisioned Denison as a research resource center for Burmese studies, and a call was put out to alumni and missionaries to donate art and artifacts they had collected while in Burma. However, people donated objects from other cultures besides Burma – in particular, the material culture of the Kuna Indians of the San Blas Islands, Panama. Objects arrived in such large numbers that a volunteer curator, Jane Terry Bailey, was appointed to care for the material. Today, Denison’s Burmese and Kuna Indian collections are acknowledged to be particularly impressive. The print and drawing collection, which includes European and North American works from the seventeenth to twentieth centuries, forms the third extensive category of the Denison holdings. The collection also contains Chinese rubbings and textiles, Japanese netsuke, European oil paintings, Southeast Asian and Chinese ceramics, African sculpture, and examples of material culture from Native Americans. Currently, the collection consists of nearly 8,000 objects dating from circa 1500 B.C. to the present.