"The objects have been coming back to us for years," Kelley said.
That includes an inmate-made model clipper ship, which was returned in 2010 by Edwin Feiler Jr., of Savannah, Ga. Feiler had bought the foot-tall boat — and dozens of smaller ones, also crafted by prisoners — for a Navy-themed party at his University of Pennsylvania fraternity in the 1950s after hearing about the inmates' handiwork through word of mouth.
In a recent phone interview, Feiler vividly recalled "the crash" of the penitentiary gate as it closed behind him when he picked up the crafts. The ship would later spend decades as decor at his beach house on Georgia's Tybee Island.
He decided to give it back to Eastern State after his daughter, Cari Feiler Bender, began doing publicity for the site.
"When something like that's on display, it becomes more meaningful to everybody," Feiler said. "All you have now are those (prison) walls, but there were people there. It was alive."
Eastern State archivist Erica Harman said one of her favorite objects is a 2-inch-tall decorative cutlery set that an inmate carved from soup bones in 1856. He used a jackknife, which was allowed during the era of solitary confinement.
Harman called the exhibit "a great reminder of the inmates' humanity."
"They're not just numbers, they're not just criminals. They're people," she said. "That can be hard to remember when you're looking at locks, cells and keys."
Follow Kathy Matheson at www.twitter.com/kmatheson