The Davis Museum and Cultural Center traces its origins to the October 23, 1889 dedication of the Farnsworth Art Building on the Wellesley College campus. It housed collections that dated to the founding of the College in 1875, when founder Henry Fowle Durant (1822-81) began a campaign to acquire original paintings, drawings, prints, and photographs, as well as plaster casts of classical sculpture, in service of a liberal arts education for women. Drawing and painting were integral to the first curriculum at the College; when Wellesley introduced the teaching of art history in 1885, it distinguished itself as one of the first American colleges to offer the subject.
Alice Van Vechten Brown, appointed in 1897 as museum director and head of the art department, modeled the new institution after the populist South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria & Albert Museum) in London. In keeping with Wellesley’s emphasis on learning and community service, Brown described the museum as “a place for classes and students, but also a place in which the public may linger and enjoy; a place to bring children, and in which teachers may study; a model to every college student of what a museum may do for any town in the land.” Brown is best known for her development of an influential art history curriculum, which focused on original art objects and was later called “The Wellesley Method.”