It Ain’t History–Yet. We Seek Ideas On How And Why To Save The Philadelphia History Museum

 

When Charles Croce, the executive director and CEO of the Philadelphia History Museum, announced last month that the Museum was closing indefinitely not many people in the tourism, heritage, or culture sectors in Philadelphia were surprised. PHM’s financial struggles were well-known and City of Philadelphia support had dropped precipitously from 1995, when it covered nearly the full operational budget. For the coming fiscal year, the City’s planned expenditures contained only $250,000 for the museum, less than one-quarter of the cost of operations. A major renovation of the 1826 John Haviland-designed facility completed in 2012 failed to spark sustained new audiences, despite some creative programming such as a gallery dedicated to revolving community and neighborhood stories and the “Map Room,” with the giant road atlas floor functioning as a gathering space for lectures, panel discussions, and civic events. The facility was too small for the literally sublime story of the city that gave the world toleration, liberty, and the manufactured material culture of modern life.

With this article, Hidden City Philadelphia hopes to raise the volume on the civic dialog about the Museum’s future, which has been rather muted so far. Why exactly did PHM close? Should it reopen and, if so, where (the Museum’s trustees own the collection, but the City owns the building)? We at Hidden City believe strongly that Philadelphia needs and deserves a vital history museum commensurate with its gigantic and also conflicted and complicated history. To launch the dialogue, we put out a call to 25 practitioners in the heritage, tourism, and culture sectors, a diverse set of actors including some public and elected officials. Not everyone replied, but those who did offer a great deal of insight and the opening to a conversation that we hope will result not in a winding down of operations, but a fundamental revamping. Responses to our questions, edited for clarity, follow this introduction by Hidden City staff.

“Philadelphia needs a history museum for the same reason, for example, the Museum of the City of New York and the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. exist,” Faye Anderson, who runs the cultural organization All That Philly Jazz, writes, in her answers to our query, below. “Philadelphia history did not begin on July 4, 1776 and end in 1800 when the nation’s capitol moved to DC. The museum’s collections tell a more complete Philadelphia story that must be preserved for current and future generations.”

Indeed, the culture and heritage experts we contacted believe this to be one of the most critical functions of the museum: to extract the city’s story from the stranglehold of the colonial and revolutionary periods, all the while making it tantalizingly relevant to today. The Philadelphia of the 19th and 20th centuries, for all its robust ambition and conflict, has epic stories for the 21st.

Moreover, we are reminded that the closing of the PHM isn’t an indication that people have given up their interest in history, or that Philadelphia lacks the talent to administer a vital and richly engaging history museum. The opposite, in fact. Hundreds of thousands of people in the region watch each episode of the film documentary “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment” during broadcasts on 6ABC. Nearly five million visited the official sites of Independence National Historical Park last year. Thousands gathered in September 2017 for the dedication of the sculpture honoring the life of 19th century civil rights hero Octavius V. Catto and thousands more attended the innovative public history project Monument Lab last summer and fall. Tens of thousands of people read this website each month. And as Seth Bruggeman, who directs Temple University’s program in public history, notes below, “Our city is an incubator for the most innovative public history practice in the country.”

The Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent officially closed to the public on July 2. The fate of its 100,000 object collection, 192-year-old building, and administrative staff remains uncertain. | Photo: Michael Bixler

The PHM opened in 1941 without a collection. Radio manufacturing magnate Atwater Kent donated the building, the original Franklin Institute. Since then the museum has acquired some 100,000 objects including a cache of significant items lent essentially in perpetuity by the Pennsylvania Historical Society. In that collection, but not on view: William Penn’s desk and the shift bell from the legendary Philadelphia hat manufacturer John B. Stetson.

The insulting $250,000 allocation by the Mayor and City Council is, like the inadequate budget for the Philadelphia Historical Commission, evidence of a City budget strangled by federal and state cuts, bled by mismanagement, and overwhelmed by the present-day needs of its citizens. History, seen as artifact, is easy to dismiss when crisis invades every aspect of urban life, from crumbling schools to inadequate transit, and when elected officials face competing demands for scarce resources. Parks or public health? Bike infrastructure or new bus routes? History or affordable housing?

Coupled with fiscal realities is the sense among various people that Philadelphia itself is some kind of open history museum, as Thaddeus Squire, who founded Hidden City and today leads the management agency CultureWorks Greater Philadelphia, notes below. Yet it is precisely because we see Philadelphia as passionately and flagrantly alive that we must attend to telling our history–and do so in place, utilizing the tactile materials of our history. 100,000 objects contain a power that no film or digital archive can replace.

One may wonder how, if this simple museum failed to sustain itself, a more ambitious public history agency could succeed. But we’ve seen no evidence that PHM’s leaders have attempted, over the last seven years, to raise significant outside funding or that the museum’s debts are so great that closure was the only option. Selling collections to raise cash is not an equivalent strategy to engaging in strategic development or seeking creative ways to earn revenue. As Andrew Ferrett, the film director responsible for “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment,” tells us, “In Pittsburgh, The John Heinz History Center–which includes a regional sports museum in its renovated industrial building–has an annual budget of more than $9 million, funded in large part by donations and admission fees.”

“A Philadelphia History Museum re-conceptualized, renamed, and relocated,” he says, “could use the city’s growing cachet to enlighten visitors about Penn’s bold vision, its spectacular industrial growth, and Philadelphia’s embodiment of the promise and peril of American urban life.”

City Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sanchez puts it this way, in response to Hidden City’s query: “A city like Philadelphia, so central to our nation’s history and so rich in cultural attractions and museums, should absolutely have a museum celebrating our own history. Looking ahead, we should review the vast portfolio of city-owned facilities, many of which are historic buildings (including closed schools), to find the appropriate co-location opportunity in a facility with complimentary cultural offerings, ideally in partnership with one of our higher education institutions.”

Note: We hope our readers will engage in this discussion. To that end, we request thoughtful responses as comments on our ideas and those of the professionals we queried. Readers may comment on this article directly though our website, on Facebook page, or submit full-length essays that we may consider for publication under our op-ed category, “Soapbox.”


Seth Bruggeman, Director, Center for Public History, Temple University

The Philadelphia History Museum’s story is a complicated one, more so than I can even begin to know. There are, however, a few things that I do know for sure:

Any museum–even a bad one–can survive so long as it has enough expertise, passion, and money. That the PHM is failing indicates that it is deficient in one or more of those areas.

The City is bound, partially by law and entirely by tradition, to ensure that the PHM has enough expertise, passion, and money. PHM’s failure indicates that the City has decided not to hold up its end of the deal. Mayor Kenney owns that decision.

PHM’s demise is no surprise. Its struggles during the last decade are well-known among Philadelphia’s museum set. That others are only now getting the message, evidenced, for instance, in the Philadelphia Inquirer’s July 2 editorial, is an unfortunate index of how little most of us know about Philadelphia’s nonprofit cultural institutions and their struggles.

The possibility of PHM’s collapse worries me a great deal. Fussy though they may be, Philadelphia’s cultural institutions–especially those like PHM that steward collections–together constitute a fragile ecosystem, as Ken Finkel put it in another recent Inquirer editorial. Just one rotten leaf can signal trouble at the root. I worry about the PHM because I worry about what its fate portends for the rest of us.

Consider for a moment that the PHM is lacking expertise, money, and/or passion in a city that:

Is home to scads of top-shelf historians and no less than three world class university programs in public history, museum studies, and museum leadership. Philadelphia has plenty of expertise.

Is home to museums, historic sites, and exhibit designers that have, in recent years, won some of the most prestigious awards in our field. Our city is an incubator for the most innovative public history practice in the country. Philadelphia has plenty of passion.

Is home to donors, philanthropists, and grant makers who pay out millions of dollars to all manner of public and private (though mostly private) historical endeavors. Philadelphia has plenty of money.

It seems that the PHM is starving in the pantry. How is it possible? Why is it that the city can’t connect its history museum with resources that are literally at PHM’s doorstep? How can it be that this inexpensive museum struggles along while massive, new multi-million dollar museums–the National Museum of American Jewish History (2010), the new Barnes Foundation gallery (2012), the Museum of the American Revolution (2017)–grab headlines. The Museum of the American Revolution alone cost $120 million. The PHM runs the City of Philadelphia about $300,000 a year.

Much of the problem, of course, owes to the flow of capital. Amid decades-long declines in public funding for arts and culture, museums that can’t tap deep pockets must endure the crushing rhythm of annual grant cycles. Getting grants is hard and eats into the core resources needed to keep a small museum on its feet. And yet, tapping deep pockets might be even more limiting insomuch as it requires doing history that rich folks get excited about. We know what museums that follow this path are like: big buildings, pricey tickets, privileged vacationers strolling the exhibits, working people of color relegated to custodial crews and café registers. This is not the kind of heritage infrastructure that does justice to Philadelphia’s rich and difficult past.

I am sure that other private money schemes for PHM are already being bandied about now that the Temple University deal has collapsed. My greatest fear is that one of these will work, and that the public face of Philadelphia’s past will get tied up in private interests. Private funding doesn’t guarantee bad history, but it usually guarantees limited perspective and it most certainly will undermine any legitimate efforts among PHM staff to share curatorial authority with the people who actually make Philadelphia history: Philadelphians.

That said, as it is unfolding right now, the conversation regarding PHM is run through with privilege and unexamined assumptions about power and entitlement. I want the Mayor to keep PHM alive, but I also want us to think hard about how history can be deployed in service of all Philadelphians. I’m reminded of the Philadelphia Moving Past Project, sponsored in 1982 by Penn’s Philadelphia Social History Project, which sought amid the celebratory hubbub of the city’s tricentennial, to equip Philadelphians with the historical skills necessary to resist detrimental policies right here in our own neighborhoods. Imagine a PHM retooled for that purpose today: a public training space for active citizenship, staffed by a rotating network of passionate experts drawn from all across the city. Here is where we and the Mayor could come for historical crib notes on all the key issues facing Philadelphians today–immigration, police violence, homelessness, civil rights, and the list goes on. Private museums won’t provide that service, at least not for everyone equally. Universities are too concerned with stadiums and prestige.

Mayor Kenney, however, has the power to make PHM a vital third space. It will take expertise, passion, and money. We’ve got all of that in Philly. But do we have the leadership?


Andrew Ferrett, Director, “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment”

Hidden City: What in your mind did the museum fail to do to make itself financially and institutionally viable?

Andrew Ferrett: A successful civic museum engages visitors with stories about what makes a particular place unique. In my visits I felt the Philadelphia History Museum did not use its collection to build a larger narrative. The presentation of artifacts on display often seemed like trees in search of a forest. Of course, a vast city has endless possible narratives; a challenge which a program of daring exhibits highlighting different elements of the collection could explore in a fascinating way. The Museum’s building is slightly off the Old City tourist path, but the Mütter Museum across town–also in a somewhat isolated location–has three times more annual visitors than PHM. To succeed, the Museum would have had to leverage its assets in a way that places it in the top tier of Philadelphia attractions.

HC: What did it do well–that no one else in the heritage community can do?

AF: I love the giant Philadelphia map spread across the floor. The map made a large, sometimes incomprehensible, place seem to cohere and make sense. By walking a few steps one could appreciate the significance of the Delaware River as the city grid hugs it for miles and miles. By stepping with ease across Broad Street and across neighborhood lines, the map allowed one to build a unified idea of our racially, economically, ethnically divided city of former villages and townships. The floor map nurtured an understanding of the Museum’s mission in a tactile way, and, in a way, that would be impossible by simply looking at a map on a wall. Wherever PHM may end up, the map should remain a part of it.

HC: Does Philly need a history museum?

AF: For years there has been talk that bricks-and-mortar are outdated and museums must be “virtual.” But there are thriving, municipal and state-supported city history museums all over the country. The Cabildo and Presbytère in New Orleans are essential tourist stops, and civic museums in Minneapolis and Cincinnati have creatively reused legacy buildings to tell their city’s story. In Pittsburgh, The John Heinz History Center, which includes a regional sports museum in its renovated industrial building, has an annual budget of more than $9 million funded in large part by donations and admission fees.

The question of “what is needed” inevitably leads to “what feels necessary?” The inclusion of a dedicated sports museum certainly improves the box office appeal of the Heinz Center, and it would be a natural fit for a town as sports-crazed as our own.

Furthermore, Philadelphia has a history rife with conflict and contest that begs for provocative interpretation. People do not have benign opinions about the city’s history, and it should not be presented in a benign way. I still remember an exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York more than a decade ago, which critically and controversially reevaluated the legacy of Robert Moses. PHM could be a venue to grapple with our often surly civic inheritance as the city that built American power, capital, and industry and then lost all of it even as the city continued to grow and evolve.

HC: What’s to be gained by trying to save the museum or reinvent it?

AF: The history that many tourists come to see in Philadelphia unfortunately doesn’t have a strong connection to the history of Philadelphia itself. The great majority of the founding fathers lived and worked elsewhere, and, for them, Philadelphia was an urbane and geographically convenient meeting place. It remains this type of place for tourists today. See the sites where the documents were debated and signed and enjoy great restaurants and cultural offerings. But do visitors gain an adequate understanding of what makes this place tick? Do they understand why there is such a big city here at all? A Philadelphia History Museum–reconceptualized, renamed, and relocated–could use the city’s growing cachet to enlighten visitors about William Penn’s bold vision, its spectacular industrial growth, and Philadelphia’s embodiment of the promise and peril of American urban life.

HC: How might you reimagine it? What would it look like and where would it go?

AF: PHM must find a place where the full collection can be displayed and interpreted in a fulsome manner. The 7th Street exhibit space could never do justice to a place as vast and complex as Philadelphia. It is unfortunate and ironic, because the museum already has the diverse assets, stored offsite, to fill a place that could tell the city’s story like none other.

Perhaps a location in a former industrial site in an up-and-coming neighborhood could attract far more destination visitors than the current location, which is easily overlooked in Center City. If significantly smaller cities can create destination museums for their history, Philadelphia can certainly do the same. And if it is aggressively programmed and promoted to make it a must-see destination, tourists and tour groups making a dedicated trip would spend double the current $10 admission charge, and more in the gift shop, to experience the story of a great city.


Shan Holt, Coordinator, Public History Program, Penn State-Abington

Hidden City: What in your mind did the museum fail to do to make itself financially and institutionally viable?

Shan Holt: The Philadelphia History Museum got caught being a City-owned cultural organization as American cities were slowly strangled by anti-tax policies nationally, at the commonwealth level, and within the city. Its long-time reliance on City funding and City-controlled staffing constrained innovation and board development. As city funding shrank, therefore, the Museum was not able to build on other sources of support. Even cultural institutions without those formal constraints are painfully slow to innovate. With those constraints, PHM was in trouble.

HC: What did it do well–that no one else in the heritage community can do?

SH: Philadelphia has an incredible story, each century full of innovation, driven by new arrivals. PHM has collections, including the artifacts of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, capable of telling these stories and increasingly, a local population willing to be proud of being in Philadelphia. Developing interpretation that uses those stories to address the real needs of the citizens would give the Museum a unique and irreplaceable mission. Relevant efforts have been made in these directions in recent years. Overcoming the isolation of museums from street life, though, is exceedingly difficult and requires sustained, fresh-thinking leadership supported by venturesome boards. That combination has not been available to PHM.

HC: Does Philly need a history museum?

SH: Independence National Historical Park acts as a brake on innovation in public history in Philadelphia. It has done so for decades, because INHP relies almost entirely upon internal Park Service historians, shunning the constant diet of rich interpretive resources available at local universities. When they do reach out, they reach to national specialists in Early American history, who mostly don’t know Philadelphia or look for ways to link Revolutionary Era narratives to the rest of the city’s fantastic history. Philadelphia needs a voice for its amazing history since 1800, especially to be any use to its contemporary population.

HC: What’s to be gained by trying to save the museum or reinvent it?

SH: History is incredibly powerful, which is why people fight so hard over it. How the story of the past is told shapes what people think about contemporary issues, viz the nutty Confederate resurgence as a way to combat racial equality or the rank idiocy of the U.S. being “founded as a Christian nation” as a way to impose Biblical literalism on our laws and policies. By not championing our own history as a city, we will end up giving away our deeply urban identity as a nursery of multicultural democracy to the vision of an overwhelmingly suburbanized population that sees cities as consumer playgrounds.

Cities are one of the great creative technologies invented by humans and they deserve to be understood and seen as such. Having an organization committed to Philadelphia’s incredible history will help us continue to raise the standard of urbanity and its possibilities. People in the city and people well beyond it need that standard; they need to see it at least waving on the horizon, if we are ever to find our way back to sanity as a nation.

HC: How might you reimagine it? What would it look like and where would it go?

SH: This may sound contradictory to what I just stated, but, as Walt Whitman once said, “So, I contradict myself.” I think PHM needs to stop being “about Philadelphia” and start becoming a beacon back to civic sanity for all Americans (and beyond). The collections can be used in hundreds of new ways, not to tell stories about how things were in this neighborhood or that local organization, but to interpret and set context for national and international concerns. How does an economy become prosperous? Well, peace with the Indians was the first step. Eh, Israel, do you here that? Eh, Russia, can you imagine?

How does a society productively welcome immigrants? Well, how about having more free flow of capital, so that entrepreneurs can get into the economy in the first place? Eh, New York, eh, Washington? Policies that restrict capital, especially by hoarding it among the already rich, hurt the economy and cause problems with immigration.

How does a community recover from loss, whether the loss of the national government in 1800 or of the industrial sector starting in 1960? Well, look around, and let’s tell how that happens. Yes, I see “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment” with its millions of loyal viewers as an inspiration and a model here.

How to do it? When Lonnie Bunch was planning for the new National Museum of African American History and Culture on the Mall, he spent almost ten years developing exhibits about African American history and culture at colleague institutions around the country. People surely told him, “Don’t waste money on that, let’s focus on building our own building.” But he kept on, knowing that by building interest and knowledge about Black history nationally, he was helping the museum. He wasn’t about just opening some doors, he was about sending interpretation out into communities where it could root in the ground and give strength to the people. If anyone has noticed, more than two years after it opened, you still can’t get a timed ticket to see it. That’s how popular it is.

So, my vision for PHM would be, let’s talk to every exhibiting organization that will partner with them about doing an exhibit that uses Philadelphia’s story to tell the nation some things it needs to hear. From the mountains to the prairies, to the oceans white with foam. Let’s start telling Philadelphia’s story on Civil War battlefields, where our men fought, our women nursed, our innovators doctored and photographed, our guns fired, our trains rolled, and our uniforms and food sustained (or didn’t) the people in the field. Let’s talk to the NMAAHC in Washington about Philadelphia’s Black history, and see whether we can schedule a special exhibit there. Let’s talk about Cecil B. Moore in Atlanta or William McMullen in Dublin. And so forth.

To do this, PHM needs to become an office of maybe four people housed with Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance. One person must be responsible for overseeing the collections, both in storage and as they move out to be shown in other places. Another must be the outreach specialist, able to imagine many stories and many uses for the artifacts. A third will have to run the office–coordinating contracts, paper, packing and shipping, etc. A fourth will have to be a media and new media presence, so that everyone in Philadelphia hears about what’s happening, how people in other communities react to our stories, what impact our stories are having on the nation and the world.

Philadelphia history would, in this vision, become a resource for the city by being a resource for the nation. That’s Philly’s great strength and always has been. We innovate here for the benefit of the whole nation. Let’s make that our watchword and we won’t have to ask these questions ever again!


Faye Anderson, Director, All That Philly Jazz

Hidden City: What in your mind did the museum fail to do to make itself financially and institutionally viable?

Faye Anderson: The Philadelphia History Museum’s failing is also the City’s failing, namely, the failure to market and promote cultural heritage tourism beyond the historic district. When I visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture, I am reminded that the African American story cannot be told without Philadelphia. In gallery after gallery, Philly is in the house.

NMAAHC has become a tourist magnet. A marketing campaign that moved beyond Benjamin Franklin’s Philadelphia and promoted, say, John Coltrane’s Philadelphia would pique cultural heritage travelers’ interest in learning more about the city.

HC: What did it do well–that no one else in the heritage community can do?

FA: The museum told neighborhood histories and hidden stories. It also told stories about hidden figures such as Octavius V. Catto. No one else in the heritage community has such a diverse collection of extraordinary and ordinary objects. Where else can one find George Washington’s desk, slave shackles, John Brown’s musket, and Joe Frazier’s boxing gloves!?

The public programs were inclusive and welcoming. The Community Gallery engaged community historians in the curatorial process. The gallery was a tacit acknowledgment that documenting history is not the sole province of those with formal training and academic degrees. The space empowered grassroots organizations to tell untold and under-told stories about underserved and overlooked communities.

HC: Does Philly need a history museum?

FA: Philadelphia needs a history museum for the same reason, for example, the Museum of the City of New York and the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. exist. Philadelphia history did not begin on July 4, 1776 and end in 1800 when the nation’s capitol moved to DC. The museum’s collections tell a more complete Philadelphia story that must be preserved for current and future generations.

No other institution could have, or more to the point, would have restored the O.V. Catto Elks Lodge banner. My heart was filled with joy when the restored banner was unveiled. For more than 30 years, the lodge was a cultural center for African Americans in South Philly. Blues legend Bessie Smith’s funeral was held there on October 4, 1937. The Elks’ Two Bit Club drew jazz enthusiasts from every neighborhood.

HC: What’s to be gained by trying to save the museum or reinvent it?

FA: The current status of the PHM underscores the meaninglessness of our “World Heritage City” designation. To be sure, we live in a digital culture, but a place provides context. It is unthinkable that the Museum’s building could be tossed on, well, the trash heap of history.

That said, reinvention is not an option. Early on, Philadelphia was known as the “City of Firsts.” In order to reach new audiences and new funding sources, the leadership must embrace technology. The next iteration of the Museum should provide visitors with interactive exhibits and immersive experiences.

HC: How might you reimagine it? What would it look like and where would it go?

FA: The Museum should stay right where it is. It is easily accessible by public transportation and within walking distance of the Pennsylvania Convention Center and Center City hotels.

I imagine the temporary closing will last much longer than six months. So, I have a modest proposal: The Philadelphia History Museum should loan its African American Collections to the African American Museum in Philadelphia which is located nearby. On January 8, 2018, President Trump signed into law the “400 Years of African American History Commission Act,” which establishes a commission to plan activities to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans into colonial America in 1619. African American history cannot be told without Philadelphia. It would be a sad commentary on the city if residents and visitors did not have access to objects that tell the story of a people’s quest for freedom.


Thaddeus Squire, Chief Commons Officer, CultureWorks Greater Philadelphia

Hidden City: What in your mind did the museum fail to do to make itself financially and institutionally viable?

Thaddeus Squire: I don’t have intimate optics into the ultimate failures. I can say that it has always been a struggle operating a museum at that location. While close to the Mall, it is not known and that part of 7th Street isn’t on the “circuit.” The building was not built as a museum and, despite costly renovations, it has challenges as a public and exhibition space. Scale is an issue as well, as the Museum is relatively small in terms of its flex space and overall programming space capacity, leaving it challenged to mount larger or, perhaps, more compelling programs. The City-independent nonprofit nature of the organization, I suspect, may have had some challenges in the realm of private fundraising, in particular with the demand of newer, more purpose built and established museums, many immediately proximate to PHM.

HC: What did it do well–that no one else in the heritage community can do?

TS: There is no museum that tells the material culture history of Philadelphia in as comprehensive a way as PHM had been pursuing, again within the limitations of budget and space.

HC:  Does Philly need a history museum?

TS: I’m not sure. I suspect that many Philadelphians and tourists feel that the city is its own museum and tourists in particular see the Mall attractions and the 18th century story of Philly as “the story.” We have not been able to brand and build awareness for the Workshop of the World history of Philly, which could have been a niche attraction for PHM. This narrative was excised by neglect with Bacon’s grand reinvention of the Philly narrative as focused exclusively on the founding moment of the nation. There are museum lacunae in the Philly market, but whether there is enough momentum of financial and civic support (such as was raised for the Museum of the American Revolution) behind these narratives is another question.

HC: What’s to be gained by trying to save the museum or reinvent it?

TS: I think there is a lot to be gained by trying to reinvent the PHM, possibly divide the building from its collections, and think about both separately and more strategically, rather than throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

The building has some public potential, but not as a museum in my opinion. Personally, I think it could be converted into a Center for Cultural Partnership & Innovation–essentially an expanded version of what CultureWorks is–independently or potentially linked to Drexel’s like-named center. It could be a co-location center for major cultural support organizations as well as cultural projects and entities themselves similar to the intention behind the new Public Law Center co-location facility in Chinatown. This could include public/discursive and convening space as well. Such a use would harken back to its days as the Franklin Institute, where it was a convening space for scientists and engineers–a hub for innovation and information exchange.

The collections are rich and should be preserved and not dispersed. Generally, not just regarding PHM, I think Philly needs a more comprehensive and collective approach to collections management. We have several high-traffic, purpose-built museums, such as the National Constitution Center, which do not have particularly rich collections of their own (or do not aspire to collect), but have space and visitation. We have collections like PHM and Pennsylvania Historical Society with buildings that were not meant to be public interpretation spaces. Being more strategic about both the management, care of collections, and the use of them in interpretive public programming may help sustain the collections, but make the city and its institutions more of a city-as-museum.


11 Comments


  1. I wonder if the University of Pennsylvania would be interested in becoming a steward of the PHM as 192 years ago, the University was located near Independence Hall before moving to its present area. They have a very good donor base and the donors with an interest in historical stuff may well be interested in funding its operations.

    We have much work to do in ensuring that our cultural insitutions survive the decades as those people supporting them will soon pass on. We need to find young people and to get them interested in their cultural museums so that they may take the mantlepiece and continue the good work.

  2. Michael Toklish

    The Atwater Kent should be the new Mummers Museum. The existing one in South Philadelphia is never rented out for functions, it is a neglected building in dire need of repairs. Its collections are never seen. It is rarely even open. Its concerts are never well attended. There are typically more band members on stage than audience members. The city loses money on it. Even the Mummers do not support it financially or otherwise. However, the building houses a large archive of rare Mummers history. This might either be moved to the new Mummers museum or the city’s rare books collection (Phila Free Library).

    The Atwater Kent is in the heart of our tourist district and can be easily visited. Concerts can be held indoors or out (there is a large outdoor space in the rear that could hold these, and tourists could now attend these free concerts). The Atwater Kent could easily be made into an upscale rental venue. The funding for this could be obtained by selling the old building at 2nd & Washington, which is now an area where developers are ravenous for residential building lots. The sale would also generate transfer taxes, real estate taxes and wage taxes from new residents. Selling the old Mummers Museum would be one less public building for the city to maintain.

    The Atwater Kent’s museum collection is valuable and significant, but it too is never seen. It should be curated by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and displayed there. Another location might be the new Museum of the American Revolution.

  3. Nice intellectual exercise as far as it goes.

    Did you think to ask a manager of a museum or historic site? Great to have opinions from academics, artists, and thinkers from a diverse pool–the work of steering a board,however, bringing stakeholders along with a vision and aligning resources in ways that provide meaning to people demand a “particular set of skills.”

    This reads like a nice batch of input from well-meaning consultants. But outside consultants typically mis-estimate the pace of organizational change because they are not having to deal with the imperatives and realities of day to day issues in real time.

    • Agreed. I expected to see answers from museum professionals currently working in Philadelphia, in Collections, Education, and Administration.

      • To Beth and David: Thanks for your comments. This article is meant to be the beginning of the conversation and as such we are anxious to hear from museum professionals. We queried some. Not everyone felt comfortable responding. I invite both of you to answer the questions we posed in the article and we will gladly publish your answers. Or, better yet, put together cogent ideas into a stand-alone piece.

  4. You guys are the best – keep the ideas coming and keep the communication flowing. There has to be a way to do this.

  5. As a historian, albeit one without any training in museums, I found the PHM to be a disappointing collection of bric-a-brac that did not really try to tell the story of the city. I agree with Ferrett that the best part was the giant map – the one place where I felt like there was a coherent narrative that gave a true sense of place. Some of this, clearly, was due to the limitations of size that the site afforded.

    I am not a native Philadelphian, and have found the best way to understand the city as it is and has been is actually right here on this website – the incredibly powerful story of particular buildings and streets, and how the placement of a simple fire hydrant can evoke all kinds of lost topographies and functions. For example, I would dearly love to see a museum that presented some of the incredible archaeological digs that have gone on here. An exhibit on how the city for centuries has been test tube for different kinds of urban planning. Or something on how the landscape of rivers and railroads shaped where and how people lived. You all do an amazing job of showing that there are really compelling stories here. I wish there was a museum that did the same.

  6. As a former museum professional who interned and worked PT at the Atwater Kent over a decade ago, some thoughts: 1) The map was a fun novelty for a visitor to enjoy once, but not conducive to exhibit space or repeat experiences. 2) Being tied to the city crippled the budget and staffing. 3) The story the the front wings told should have been a larger permanent collection – a timeline of the entire history of the city. The collection at PHM are without equal. In a building that size, one floor could have and should have been dedicated to a permanent overview of the city’s history. 4) There used to be a permanent exhibit but it was wrongfully blamed for lack of attendance and replaced by the map. Which again is neat but not a draw for visitors. The issue was not the collections or exhibits; it was the outreach and our presence in the community. We did not have champions in the tourism sector to drive traffic to the museum, and the one NPS site close by (“Declaration house”) was often closed and incredibly outdated (as in, still exhibiting Bicentennial installations). 5) the other floor should and could have been focused on specific questions and conflicts in Philadelphia’s history. Philadelphia as a lens to wider issues across the United States at different points in time.
    A new building with a new mission, as well as a vigorous lending program and buy-in from the tourism sector, could make PHM relevant and successful.

  7. Daniel Ferrarello

    If there was the funding and interest to open a reinvented Philadelphia History Museum in a different space, I think that Germantown’s Town Hall would be a nice fit. It has the size and the grandeur to house a museum and is located in a historic district. Here it would not compete with the myriad attractions in Old City, and it could serve as an anchor in a revitalizing part of the city.

  8. I never experienced the static floor map but immediately I thought, well, sounds nice but it needs to be dynamic, changing, interactive. Why freeze history?

    That said, the visual history of the city cannot be told by just artifacts. Or maps and interactive pacing of story lines. You need to show the real thing, whatever we have left of it. A great big old building.

    Adjacent the rail park would be great; you could see the history outside and maybe go up on the roof and look down and see the rich and evolving urban fabric. Or near the Delaware … that giant warehouse with the flag on it at Delaware and Noble is perfect – and then fill it. Make no small plans. Recreate entire factory settings from Stetson or Disston Saw. That little wood turning shop on 2nd St. – go grab all that stuff and reconstruct it on display before it is gone and forgotten.

    The big map – let’s reinvent it as a giant wall display that evolves from early history to modern times slowly or, on command as users inquire about sites or certain date lines. Let’s go liberate the big 1876 Centennial Exhibition model from Memorial Hall and tell a gigantic story about this massive, impressive display of achievement. Wow, come to think of it, Memorial Hall could house this new museum, seeing how it once was one. I’m sure with some more thought we can think of 10 more locations. We still have the creativity to do this, right now we are lacking gumption.

    When I think of the excellent book Devil in the White City and how it makes me want to get out of my chair and fly to Chicago and look around (and how my mind wanders and I feel transported in time) – THAT is how I would like my city museum to make me feel.

    What are the top 5 City Museums in the world? I have some vacation time saved up and I need some travel ideas.

  9. I’ve lived in Philadelphia over 30 years an been to the museum exactly one time, and I don’t even remember what that was. Clearly the museum hasn’t marketed itself well to either residents or visitors.
    Given the city’s propensity to waste money, and that it has already taxed its citizens excessively, the museum must find a reason to exist and a funding source apart from city hall. If it can’t, perhaps its collection should be folded into another museum’s collection and the building, lovely though it is, repurposed.

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