The Rochester estate of George Eastman (1854–1932) was bequeathed upon his death to the University of Rochester. University presidents (first Benjamin Rush Rhees, then Alan Valentine) occupied Eastman's mansion as a residence for ten years. In 1948, the university transferred the property to the museum and the Georgian Revival Style mansion was adapted to serve the museum's operations.
George Eastman House was chartered as a museum in 1947. From the outset, the museum's mission has been to collect, preserve, and present the history of photography and film. The museum opened its doors on November 9, 1949, displaying its core collections in the former public rooms of Eastman's house. Today, the museum's name is the George Eastman Museum.
The museum's original collections — including the Medicus collection of Civil War photographs by Alexander Gardner, Eastman Kodak Company's historical collection, and the massive Gabriel Cromer collection from France — attracted significant additions over the next 40 years. Entire archives, corporate collections, and artists' lifetime portfolios have been donated to the Eastman Museum, as well as an assemblage of rare motion pictures and ephemera.
By 1984, the museum's holdings were considered by many to be among the world's finest, but with the collections growing at a rapid pace, the museum was increasingly burdened by its own success. Additional space became critical to store, study the increasing number of collection objects. The museum's expansion facility opened to the public in January 1989.
In 1999, the George Eastman Museum launched the Mellon Advanced Residency Program in Photograph Conservation, made possible with grant support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The program trains top photograph archivists and conservators from around the world.
In 1996, the museum opened the Louis B. Mayer Conservation Center in nearby Chili, New York. One of only four film conservation centers in the United States (as of March 2006), the facility houses the museum's rare 35 mm prints made on cellulose nitrate. That same year, the Eastman House launched the first school of film preservation in the United States to teach restoration, preservation, and archiving of motion pictures. The L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation is supported by a grant from The Louis B. Mayer Foundation.
George Eastman Museum has organized numerous groundbreaking exhibitions, including New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape in 1975.
On October 6, 2015, the museum changed its name from George Eastman House to the George Eastman Museum.
The current director of the George Eastman Museum is Bruce Barnes who was appointed in September 2012.
The George Eastman Museum is headed by a board of trustees. Steven Schwartz, of Chicago, is the current chair of board.
The George Eastman Museum's annual budget is approximately $10 million. As of December 2014, its endowment exceeded $35 million.
The museum's holdings comprise more than 400,000 photographs and negatives dating from the invention of photography to the present day; 28,000 motion picture films; three million other cinematic objects, including letters, scripts, musical scores, lobby cards, posters, film stills, and celebrity portraits; more than 16,000 objects of photographic and cinematographic technology; an internationally renowned research collection of books, periodicals, and other materials on photography and moving images; and George Eastman's home furnishings and decorative arts, personal and business correspondence, private library, photographs, negatives, films, and related personal items.
The photography collection embraces numerous landmark processes, objects of great rarity, and monuments of art history that trace the evolution of the medium as a technology, as a means of scientific and historical documentation, and as one of the most potent and accessible means of personal expression of the modern era. More than 14,000 photographers are represented in the collection, including virtually all the major figures in the history of the medium. The collection includes original vintage works produced by nearly every process and printing medium employed. Notable holdings include:A major collection of Ansel Adams’ early and vintage prints
A major collection of nineteenth-century photographs of the American West
A major collection of ca. 1890s-1910s glass negatives from French photojournalist Charles Chusseau-Flaviens
One of the largest collections of daguerreotypes in the world
The museum is also an important repository of the work of Stieglitz and Edward Steichen.
Virtually every major photographer who has emerged in the past 50 years is represented, although the changing realities of the photographic marketplace dictate a greater selectivity in the acquisition of works than ever before. Notable contemporary photographers include Steve McCurry, Robert Frank, Ed Kashi, James Nachtwey, Sebastião Salgado, Manuel Rivera-Ortiz, or Larry Towell.
The George Eastman Museum Motion Picture Collection is one of the major moving image archives in the United States. It was established in 1949 by the first curator of film, James Card (1915–2000) who helped to build the George Eastman Museum as a leading force in the field with holdings of over 25,000 titles and a collection of stills, posters and papers with over 3 million artifacts.
The George Eastman Museum established the George Eastman Award for distinguished contribution to the art of film in 1955 as the first award given by an American film archive and museum to honor artistic work of enduring value.
George Eastman built his residence at 900 East Avenue between 1902 and 1905. He created a unique urban estate complete with 10.5 acres (42,000 m2) of working farm land, formal gardens, greenhouses, stables, barns, pastures, and a 35,000-square-foot (3,300 m2), 50-room Colonial Revival mansion with a fireproof structure made of reinforced concrete.
Eastman's house presented a neoclassical Georgian Revival facade of decorative craftsmanship. Beneath this exterior were such modern conveniences as an electrical generator, an internal telephone system with 21 stations, a built-in vacuum cleaning system, a central clock network, an elevator, and a great Aeolian pipe organ. Eastman used the house as a center of the city's rich musical life from 1905 until his death in 1932.
The estate was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1966.